Can a Hollywood animation icon make it in the harsh world of NYC reality? 1,386 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming
Mickey was awful tired. The snap of life was long gone. The heartbeats and thought-waves had died out when the drawing stopped. After that, animation was only a matter of machines, and money. Walt Disney, who wasn’t the nice man his conglomerate’s PR department sold to the world, was long dead, his severed head supposedly stuck in a San Fernando Valley deep-freeze. Minnie, the she-mouse Mickey was supposed to love, had turned into a block of black ice with long eyelashes and too much lipstick. Minnie had nothing to say anymore. She’d been clobbered by life or its simulation, stricken mute as Pluto, that distant animal star. Mickey knew how love felt, but he’d never been happy with what it really meant, to him.
He felt rootless, lifeless, old. Born from a bottle of India ink and a stolen idea, made to move by brushes with destiny, forced to express emotions not necessarily his own, he nonetheless felt the urge to return, somewhere. Back to the well of blackness, the life-blood that tasted like the end, which is where it all began, for him.
Mickey didn’t say goodbye to anyone at the Studio. Not a word to Huey, Dewey and Louie, or whatever Donald’s nephews were called. Not a word to his supposed friend, that buck-toothed monster from another species. He couldn’t even bring himself to say that stupid name.
He didn’t leave a note, he just left.
What happens when you fall for a showbiz wannabe who then becomes a somebody? 2,468 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
When the film rights to Truman Blu’s novel, Better Off Dead, sold for two million dollars to Magnet Pictures, it was a triumph. Three days ago, the publishing rights had sold to HarperCollins for seven hundred fifty thousand, thereby creating the buzz that would make Truman Blu a rich man. Of course, the author was thrilled, but the huge sale also made Lolo’s boss, Peter Biro look like a star and Lolo basked in the reflected light.
Truman had been a struggling writer in the unincorporated town of Victor, Montana, and went from penury to riches overnight. A month later, he came down to L.A. for his victory lap. He arrived unexpectedly, and Peter was in a staff meeting. Lolo texted her boss, who texted back that she should take Truman to Starbucks and Peter would get there as soon as he could.
Lolo went down to the atrium to retrieve Truman. He rose from a Herman Miller sofa. It took a long minute for Truman to reach his full height. He dipped his head in the way of tall men and smiled. Those teeth. The man must have eaten nothing but candy as a child. Truman Blu, previous to this windfall, was a man who could not afford teeth. But Lolo saw past that. What she saw was a man bathed in the glow of genius. He had done the one thing she wanted to do, the thing she dreamed of doing as she wrote late into the night. Lolo had always been a sucker for men of literature. One drunken night back in New Hampshire, she had sucked on the tips of a man’s fingers just because he’d had a short story published in Ploughshares.
An artist, his dealer and a studio mogul begin the most shocking of negotiations. 2,606 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“No! No! It can’t be done. The Post Office changed the rules and they can’t be sent through the mail any longer.” Why did I pick up the fucking phone? “Going through the U.S. Mail was an essential part of each artwork.”
Sue comes stumbling down the hall, half asleep and half naked. I’m staring at her pussy when I realize she is mouthing, “Who is it?” The bull shit on the phone continues.
“I don’t give a fuck how rich the S.O.B. is. I’m not in the movie business and never heard of the dude.” Doug, my art dealer, has some studio mogul on the hook and is determined to land him. I continue trying to explain why this simply can’t happen. “The Post Office changed the rules ages ago. It can’t be done. Final! End of conversation!”
I return the phone to its cradle with a crash. Can’t do that with a cell phone. I grab my shirt from the hook and feel around for rolled joints in the pocket. One left. Perfect.
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.
David O. Selznick’s new assistant learns more than the movie biz. 2,711 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Three days later the Super Chief hissed into Pasadena, its crimson war bonnet and yellow locomotive gleaming in the sparkling Southern California morning sun. The chauffeur was waiting and hefted our bags into the trunk of the Cadillac Fleetwood limousine. The trip had been three days of valuable reconnaissance about my new boss. I’d learned that David O. Selznick was a frenetic and obsessive memo dictator, a chain smoker, a heavy drinker, a cheap-feels copper on lady friends he’d trapped in the train passageways, and, mostly, a terrible gambler.
The driver eased the car out of the train station lot and drove onto Colorado Street headed south to Beverly Hills. Selznick slapped my knee.
“Buzz, you haven’t set a foot down at the studio yet but you are, dear boy, a true gem of a hire. Now I’ve leased an apartment in the Beverly Hills flats for you. We’ll drop you there now. Relax today and come into the office tomorrow to organize yourself with Lydia Schiller, my secretary. Then clear Friday night. You and I have a date in Tijuana.”
“What’s in Tijuana?”
“You’ll see. Just wear your suspenders.”
My next few days were a frenzied blur of running errands for Selznick to his tailor, to his bookie, to his lady friends, to his doctor to pick up and wait for prescriptions to be filled between snatches of time reading Gone With The Wind.
It’s 1936 and a smart college student is this movie mogul’s newest assistant. 2,079 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I stood up as story editor Kate Brown arrived in the conference room. She smiled. She had a polished debutante look about her with alert eyes that seemed to hide a lively intellect. “So, Buzz, I’m assuming that Professor Hawley briefed you,” she said earnestly, glancing down at a letter. “He writes here that you did your senior thesis on Middlemarch and played first base on the Columbia baseball team. Impressive juxtaposition of talents.”
She lifted her eyes off the paper and sized me up, watching me twitch in my tweed suit, a clearly idiotic choice for a 93-degree New York City summer day.
“Mind if I remove my coat?” I asked, feeling the drip of sweat beads zig-zagging down my neck. Were I a contortionist, I’d surely be kicking myself in the ass at this point. It’s the only suit I now own. I did have a new $15 blue serge number I wore for my college graduation which, to my everlasting misfortune, shrunk in a sudden thunderstorm to a size more adaptable to a Bar Mitzvah boy than my 6’2” frame. So it was either the tweed or dungarees and a Columbia t-shirt.
“Sure,” Kate said. Then she stood up, clicked on the big fan and aimed it to sweep my tweed pants.
“Blessings on you, “ I said, feeling the waves of cool relief. “So this is an assistant job to a movie executive?”
“Mr. David O. Selznick, yes. Didn’t the professor mention that?”
Which is worse on a TV shoot: wrangling insane directors or stupid executives? 1,850 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
You know it’s a bad day when the Network appoints an incompetent head case to be its new programming chief and the guy you chose to direct your latest movie turns out to be a fraud.
Let’s just call it a massive Xanax day.
My name is Ray Medly and after years of toiling in the fields and learning my craft, I now produce motion pictures, including theatrical features, movies for television and streaming video.
I’d begun shooting Wagons West on the same day Mascot Cable trumpeted the hiring of Truman Rombolt, the third member of a three person team of programmers at RBP Productions and the subject of much industry speculation as to what it was they were thinking when they hired him.
When it was announced he was to become Mascot’s new head of programming, a collective groan could be heard all over Hollywood.
"Clueless," was how one producer described him.
"A deeply disturbed human being," commented another.
The showbiz somebody tries to overcome his nobody past. 1,742 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“I didn’t know this guy, Tate, was a good friend of yours,” the Netflix show’s cinematographer, Percy Swain, said when he ran into the producer in the hotel lobby a few days later.
“He’s not,” Dale Beauchamp replied, succinctly, about Tate Frawley, the local guy who’d been hired only because he owned an ARRI and let the production have it for free as long as he was hired to operate it. “We grew up together. Haven’t seen him since high school. How’s he working out?”
“He’s capable enough. Bit of an attitude problem, but nothing I can’t handle.”
“Sorry. Didn’t know it was him until after you gave me the green light. Since we were in the home stretch, I didn’t want to risk losing another day of shooting.”
“Forget I mentioned it. When I’m exhausted, the slightest ripple threatens my authoritarian demeanor. Hope you’re pleased with what I’ve done.”
“Percy,” Dale grinned, “the dailies look terrific. You’re one of my not-so-secret weapons.”
“Thanks,” Percy said, expelling a deep breath. “I really needed a good ass-kissing this morning.”
Today’s showbiz somebody was a nobody way back when. 1,481 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
On the third day of production, Dale Beauchamp dragged himself into the hotel just after midnight. He scanned a room that had seen better days. The bedspread was faded and one of the armchairs had an injured foot that caused it to list to one side. In the absence of any four-star accommodations within ninety miles, this was his home for the next four months during filming of his new series for Netflix.
Initially, he’d considered renting a house in a more secluded spot. But WiFi out of town was sketchy and the production office was only a two-minute walk from the hotel. The only decent places to eat – mostly mom and pop diners, and one not half bad “upscale” bistro – were located along the anonymous undulating blue highway outside his window. Otherwise, it was Arby’s or IHOP or other chains as far as the eye could see.
The set caterer, Cindy, was a townie who’d worked a few commercials, an affable young woman whose sewn-on smile never flagged even when she’d stubbed her toe. Yesterday, for the first time since he’d left home in Catesville, he ate sandwiches made with Wonder Bread. While he was far from a Hollywood elitist, Dale was caught up short by the fact that Wonder Bread was still being manufactured.
He made a note to have Lucille, the production supervisor, speak to Cindy but held out little hope. Their catering budget was restrictive. Working for streaming outlets made him nostalgic for the relatively lavish perks of mainstream cable, which were already a far cry from network shows. Every spare penny went to talent and production values. If it wasn’t up there on the screen, there’d be no second season, and he’d be making the rounds again with one of the half dozen film and TV projects his company was developing: working harder just to keep his name visible, praying for a break-out hit to afford him some leverage.
A movie studio executive refereeing a ruckus wonders how he got in the middle of it. 1,841 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1953
The Paramount Pictures executive suite was decorated in muted blue and green tones with aqua adorning the walls of the sumptuous offices where the top men nested on large sofas and chairs that reflected the paint scheme. An interior designer, probably a set decorator from the studio, suggested the colors because they had a soothing effect on the inhabitants and their visitors.
But this soothing atmosphere was having little to no effect on the meeting taking place inside James McLaren’s office. Jimmy to his friends, Paramount’s Chief of Studio Production was in the process of mediating between one of the most heralded directors and the current hot blonde commodity that the studio had produced.
“Sie ist faul und kann nicht handeln!” Hart Winslow, nee Reinhardt Wisner, shouted, slipping into his native German whenever he began to get angry. Winslow was one of many of the great artists that Hitler managed to chase out of Germany in the thirties. The director belonged to the legendary Berlin school of filmmakers that also produced Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. His escape was aided by the exiled Europeans now living in Hollywood; Bertolt Brecht had been his traveling companion.
McLaren didn’t speak a word of German but knew that Winslow was upset. “Hart, please, calm down.”
Winslow tried to stay in his chair. “Jimmy — excuse me, Mr. McLaren — she is… unprofessional!” He was using both hands as if praying or pleading.
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.”