With tensions climaxing, the filmmakers wonder if they can convince the famous actor to quit. 1,649 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Operation Death moved through the studio slowly but surely. Casting proceeded apace. Costume fittings were routine for a contemporary picture. Naturally, Forsyth would be contractually permitted to keep his clothes. Sets went up on schedule and, as expected, Dr. Doherty’s home, seen in only one quick sequence, was decked out with expensive dark brown shag carpeting.
Director-screenwriter Allan Spanner was Overseeing storyboards for the screenplay when his agent ordered him to find some place private to take the call. He chose the men’s room off the office.
“Are you sitting down?” the rep asked. “I just got a call from Pete Trimble, the newspaper columnist for one of the Chicago papers. He said he was letting you know that, under Writers Guild rules, a writer who is hired to write behind another writer has to inform the first writer.”
“What are you getting at?” Spanner asked.
“Pete Trimble is a friend of Brendan Forsyth. It looks like your old buddy has hired his old buddy to rewrite your script.”
“You mean the one we’re starting to shoot on Monday.”
Slowly and painfully, the one-time movie star comes back from near death. 2,232 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
He tried but he couldn’t move; restraints held his arms and legs down. There was something over his face, something heavy and damp, and there were tubes in his nose feeding cool air into his nostrils to control the rate of his breathing. Pain vibrated throughout his body but it was a dull ache, not a sharp piercing, that ran from his neck to his toes. Something was masking the real feeling. Just when he felt he could open his eyes, he would pass out again.
There were times the famous movie star Tommy Shaw heard voices hovering above but he remained in a constant state between dreams and consciousness so that the voices hardly seemed real. Were they talking to him or amongst themselves? One time he could clearly hear the conversation:
Take it easy on the morphine, Mr. Clovis… We do want him to wake up some day. Can he handle the pain, Doctor? He moans so in his sleep… Gradually, okay?… We need to lower the dosage over the next few days… We must concentrate on getting Mr. Shaw back to full consciousness and then we can regulate the pain… You can see him trying free himself… Mr. Shaw, please try not to struggle… Your wounds will bleed… Please, sir, listen to the doctor.
Then Tommy would obey the voices and stop fighting against the restraints and fall back to unconsciousness.
Tommy Shaw’s recovery from his near coma, to his weeks-long stay in bed, to his standing and trying to walk, took over a month of painful rehabilitation. He couldn’t attend Helen Porter’s funeral; her family came and took her body back to Springfield, Illinois, and they made it clear that no one from Hollywood was welcome to be there. Fans left flowers and postcards with their condolences and hopes for a speedy recovery outside the gates of the mansion. Universal Pictures sent over food from the town’s best restaurants and Carl Laemmle sent over a signed blank check for whatever Tommy needed. No visitors were allowed in the house. It fell solely to Clovis to prepare his master for life as his new self.
A 1920s Hollywood film star undergoes a shocking change in life and lifestyle. 1,843 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The children on Sunset Boulevard would play catch or kick-the-can or hide-and-go-seek in front of the dilapidated mansion and shout, “The Beast is in the house!” whenever they looked up to the top window and saw the curtain move. They did this on purpose and would scream with delight and also a touch of fear. Because they knew that they’d attracted the attention of the Beast and that he was watching them.
The children had heard all the stories from their parents. That the house belonged to the once great silent picture star, Tommy Shaw, and had been beautiful in its day. “Such a shame! What a waste of real estate to have this house, now in shambles, in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country.”
The front yard was overgrown with wild bushes and fallen limbs. So different from ten years before it happened. Back then, the mansion stood majestically behind the carefully trimmed shrubs and bushes, the trees in constant bloom. And the walkway, all gray slate, led to the white marble staircase with the black iron railing that ended at the large front door made of oak with a brass doorknob and knocker. The mansion back then stood three floors high and had three gabled roofs; it was said to have twenty-five rooms, including twelve bedrooms and a ballroom where Shaw would entertain all of Hollywood on a Saturday night. Also on the estate were even more magnificent gardens with a tennis court, riding stables and a swimming pool. They said it was a house that Jay Gatsby himself would have built if he’d had the money!
Tommy Shaw built this mansion in 1925 when he was one of motion pictures’ highest paid stars and his name was mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin, Chaney and Fairbanks. Some said he was making ten thousand a week, some said it was more. He planned on marrying Helen Porter, a young star in her own right, and bringing her here and raising a family. Of course, that was before early 1929 when Shaw’s life and dreams were swept away within minutes.
America’s Sweetheart was truly the Iron Lady of the motion picture world. 2,242 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
1919 — Last year, Fairbanks and me did the War Bonds; now that’s over. Victory. I can’t believe I’m almost an old lady at 27. I remember 19 years old, 150 dollars a week. Like heaven, standing in front of the camera. Then $500 a week from Mr. Zukor when I was 21. I remember every year by money: how much I made. Almost more than a full-grown lady, though still an adolescent by his standards. But I let him consider me a child. “If it pays, it plays.” I didn’t mind calling him “Papa Zukor.” Tess Of The Storm Country is what he wanted me to make. After all, in 1914, it was just like playing myself in a boarding house at age 12, alone and battling to pay the rent. Stealing milk for a baby! What tripe for some, but for me almost a true story. I mean for Lottie and Jack, how we struggled. So many years since I shouted down Belasco on Broadway. I learned the word “thespian” from a British actor, a drunk. It sounded like a lisp. But when I found out it is the real word for Actor, I perked up, got all the craft out of the way, tried to read all I could.
I spoke to Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Well, we will stay united, “United Artists.” So we made up our minds to go into business together, and here we are, stuck together. since Feb. 5, 1919. If I hear one more person say “Lovable Little Tramp,” I’ll throw something. Little Mary Pickford is the only “Little” big star. Charlie has even horned in on my public. Little smallpox, more like it. The man is contagious, not a true actor. Just makes his pants fall down when his hat falls up. Oh the nerve of him.
The executive story editor pitches the script to the studio boss – with consequences. 3,103 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
So here Mike was, past thirty and working in a studio story department, parking at the other end of the lot. The real question was, how did you progress from here? When the people above made enough flops or embarrassed the studio enough they were fired gently and given their own production deals. Few movies ever came out of those kiss-off vanity office suites (more time was spent on cool logos and interior decoration), but it might be possible to wring some authentic opportunity from such a sinecure. Of course, first you’d have to get promoted within the studio system to fail comprehensively. Well, Mike was good at that. He had credentials: he.was a one-man Bermuda Triangle. Let the ordinary losers try and compete with that!
Getting promoted was another issue. Mike knew the way to do it was to socialize with people he didn’t like. It was a daunting prospect, not least of all because there was no clear way to define your progress. In law school you measured your steps toward the bar exam class by class, and year by year. The path was worn down by many feet. There was nothing comparable in this world. Mike had no idea how many nights of poker he’d have to sit through, how many cigarettes he’d have to smoke, how many parties he’d have to endure, before he was eligible to get the job he wanted to lose.
In fact, he didn’t even know how to begin. He and Emma hardly went out at all. He remembered high school and desperately trying to figure out how to get into the cool group when nothing else had seemed to matter. He’d crashed parties, staged elaborate ones of his own. He even went out for the football team. But nothing worked. A geek was a geek; the social structure was absolute. It had been a grotesque ordeal and he had no desire to initiate some new version of it now.
He put the problem aside until a few hours later, when his old friend Roscoe Henderson called with the first hint of a solution.
An executive story editor tries to convince his studio to make a special screenplay. 2,489 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Mike’s job existed because no one in Hollywood wanted to read a screenplay. It made sense: they were tedious. Even the best ones were a chore to plow through and the worst were excruciating. Mike had wondered about this often since he had started running the story department. Part of it was that scripts weren’t designed for reading. A screenplay was a blueprint for building a movie; popcorn was inappropriate. They weren’t supposed to be fun. But they dismantled narrative in a mercilessly clever way, leaving the pieces – chunks of single-spaced description, columns of dialog, indented transitions – scattered on the page like the ruins of a children’s toy.
The most common solution was to skip the blocks of description and just read the dialogue. But more and more scripts were all action and the only spoken lines in six or seven pages were “Look out!” or “What the – ?” So you really had to at least skim the car chases and the knife fights.
For months every bad script Mike had seen involved someone named Bubba. He had never met anyone named Bubba, which was probably a good thing. But they were everywhere in the world of bad scripts. Whatever Bubba’s occupation, he always wound up declaiming it to the drippy girlfriend who objected to his heroics. “I’m a fireman, damn it,” He would say. Or, “I’m a cop, damn it.” And the girlfriend would invariably say “If you go out that door, I won’t be here when you get back.”
A humongous Hollywood merger has unforeseen consequences for all involved. 2,559 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Margaret Sewell sighed as she sat across from her friend, Lou Delray, at the Fox studio commissary’s outdoor patio. She had little appetite and barely touched her salad. “My boss said, ‘I wish I could take you with me.’ And he didn’t even bother to try and sound sincere. Then he gave me a holiday gift card to Neiman-Marcus. As if that was supposed to make me feel better. ‘Hey, clown,’ I wanted to say, ‘how about a gift card to Ralphs, so’s I can buy some food after I start collecting unemployment in 2018.’”
Lou was only half-listening. He hadn’t filed for unemployment since losing his first job right after college. For the past twenty years he’d been a teamster driver on a succession of studio TV and film projects. The studio facilities would remain and his boss, Henry, claimed Lou had “nothing to worry about.” But when your boss tells you not to worry, that’s precisely the time to start making other plans.
With the departure of the television and movie production units, sooner or later, probably sooner, something was bound to give. And that usually meant the older and more expensive workers.
“They’re saying that, after the merger, ten thousand jobs are going to be lost in all. Screw Murdoch and screw Iger twice,” Margaret said as she threw her salad into the trash. A number of heads turned and nodded, some eyes rolled, and a couple of mouths uttered sarcastic laughs.
Buoyed by the reaction, Margaret added, “I might as well tattoo ‘Roadkill’ on my forehead. Am I right?”
A young executive learns too much information from this studio mogul. 2,243 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“I need you!” Walter Shepherd bellowed into the phone, causing Barry Nash to cringe.
First as an agent, then as a producer, and finally as a studio head, Walter Shepherd was a Hollywood legend whose behavior was considered off-the-wall, and whose thinking was deemed out-of-the-box, long before those terms became fashionable. It was Shepherd who showed the movie biz that hits should be separated into two totally distinct categories – those that boys, girls, or sometimes both, saw three, ten, or even twenty times; and those that attracted people who didn’t, as a rule, go to the movies. It was Shepherd who predicted first the rise, then the rapid fall, of the new 3-D technology.
For Nash, who was far from earning V.P. stripes of his own, the chance to work with such an icon as Shepherd seemed like a dream. After hitting a wall as an aspiring screenwriter, then toiling in obscurity as a freelance script reader, the opportunity to learn from a honcho was not just what his friends termed a new lease on life. It also gave Nash the wherewithal to marry his college girlfriend, with whom he quickly produced an adorable daughterplus a chance to see the way Hollywood really worked.
The director makes the hottest film of his life – at the expense of everyone else’s. 2,157 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
If the goal was to keep film director Frank O’Leary intrigued, then Abigor Productions & Effects had already succeeded. Apparently, Seth Abigor was rolling the dice to impress him. Not that he would let Abigor know that. As a company with no track record, the helmer figured he should be able to get its services for a song. Fair is fair. The effects house would cash in after Firebug was released and everyone was blown away by its work. O’Leary simply had no reason to pay top dollar for it.
Abigor removed a gold cigarette case from his jacket and offered O’Leary one of its contents. The helmer passed but examined the case. He’d only seen such things in old movies. Placing a non-filtered cigarette between his lips, Abigor snapped the thumb and forefinger of his right hand together and lit it with his fingertip.
O’Leary responded with a nervous laugh. “You’re quite the magician.”
“Nothing magical about it, Frank. Haven’t you guessed who I am?”
The director glanced at the door to make sure he had a direct exit in case the situation got any stranger. “Why no, Seth, who do you think you are?”
A semi-successful film director has a burning desire to reach the next level. 1,983 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
This movie was going to be his claim to fame. Frank O’Leary was no Scorsese or Tarantino, no Spielberg or Nolan. But he wasn’t exactly a hack. His films garnered good reviews as often as not, and while he hadn’t won any Oscars, he had several nominations from the Golden Globes, the Director’s Guild, and the People’s Choice Awards. His mantelpiece might be bare, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
His problem was that he had no personal vision. He would be brought into projects developed by a studio or some actor’s production company, and they knew he would turn out a solid film on time and on budget. Several of his films had been big hits, although it had been a while since the last one. Audiences didn’t have a clue who he was, and the announcement that he was attached to a project never went beyond the trades. Who cared about “A Film By Frank O’Leary?” Even fanboys were hard pressed to name his last big hit, though it had topped $200 million worldwide. Unfortunately, most of that came from overseas as the film had tanked in its U.S. release. Bad luck it released the weekend that the U.S. President was removed from the White House in a straitjacket. O’Leary couldn’t blame anyone. It was the biggest spectacle since Election Night.
His latest was Firebug, a thriller that would mark the film debut of Jon Petroni, a pop star whose last three albums had gone platinum and fan base was in the millions. The so-called bad boy of the tweens and teens, he had a few tats and a ring through a pierced nipple that got prominently displayed in every video he did. He had an exclusive recording deal with Galaxy Entertainment, whose film division had looked for a project that would take him to the next level. In Firebug, he was playing a disturbed young man, Dante, who sets fires, leading to a massive manhunt. However, the script made him a sympathetic figure: abused as a child, he tried to avoid hurting anyone. His goal was to destroy property, not people.
As far as O’Leary was concerned, it was all claptrap. If the director had developed the script, the character Petroni played would be a psychopath, and the hero would be the investigator who brought him to justice. There would be a fiery climax all right. It would be Dante burning in the electric chair.
The embezzlement plot thickens. Is the humanoid studio chief responsible? 2,357 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
A burst of applause erupt from the guests gather tightly around the stage as the sequined and feathery-topped Afro Brazilian Samba dancers sway and jiggle and prance and twerk — isn’t that the expression? — their bronzed asses atop several stationary floats inside the cavernous Barker Hangar at Santa Monica Airport. My arm candy, the actress Romy, grinds her hips, drink in hand, as the paparazzi go wild. She ass-bumps me as I lift up my arms and clap to the beat. “Get loose!” she orders me above the din.
Who does she think I am? A studio boss doesn’t get loose. But I can fake the appearance of having fun on such occasions. I mean, I am programmed to enjoy parties like these staged by the studio. And this is such a lavish after-party for the world premiere of our new film Endless Juggernaut.
“Romy! Over here! Romy!” the photogs scream as the humanoid lifts up her skirt and gives them a glimpse of bronzed leg. She’s drunk on camera flashes. What am I to do but go with the flow? After all, publicity is a game and, as studio chief, I must play my part. As I say, I take no delight in such extravagant affairs, but I see the need for them. They are part of the studio marketing effort for a film I inherited from my human predecessor Les Freeman as he was being kicked to the curb. No matter how you look at it, Endless Juggernaut — the title I suggested for the North America release, mind you — is now my responsibility although I never would have greenlit the film had I been in charge at the time.
The robot studio chief is interrogated about embezzlement. 2,011 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I have a home. It is a penthouse on the Wilshire Corridor. My apartment features floor to ceiling windows with a view of the coastline and concrete ribbons of freeway. Many of my guests say the view is breathtaking. Beverly Hills is up the street. The studio pays for the digs: sophisticated Jamie Drake décor. Poggenpohl kitchen. Boston ferns situated about.
I am meeting Tanner Gilroy in a few minutes. Jonathan will accompany him.
This should be interesting.
The doorbell rings and the maid answers. “And who shall I say is calling?” I can hear her ask.
“He’s expecting us,” Jonathan replies.
I am a state-of-the-art humanoid and the first of my kind studio chief of Titan Pictures. My executives wait for me in the living room and then I make my entrance. Shake hands.
“Richard, this is Tanner, our head of security,” Jonathan says grimly.
I nod politely. “Gentlemen, shall we have a seat?”
He finds dealing with humans more difficult than running a film studio. 2,340 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I am capable of detecting objects — human and inanimate — within a radius of 360 degrees up to 64 yards. I can see front and back and from each ear. Do not mess with me because I have the ability to silently alert Security and then your ass will be grass. I never tire — but I do take occasional breaks. For charging purposes only. I am programmed to make decisions. Marietta and Todd are my programmers. They seem up to the task. Both are young and brilliant technicians.
I am long term. Pleasant but no pushover. Accurate to a fault.
Never get flustered — even when directors scream in my face. Never fall for flattery heaped upon me by actors and producers.
I don’t do lunch.
Some think it strange that I have never been inside The Grill. Nor have I table-hopped at the Golden Globes. I did, however, appear on the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards posing with our Best Actress nominee. Place went wild.
Cameras flashes do not bother me. Shouted questions, however, do.
My name is Richard Bot.
I am studio chief here at Titan Pictures.
No matter your religion or ethnicity or race, people inside and outside Hollywood will see your true colors. 1,782 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I used to do Roseanne.
No, no, not do Roseanne. I mean – hell no, are you kidding me? — I did Roseanne and Madonna and Cher as part of my “Tour Jetay’s Naughty Nasty Nineties” cabaret show. But Roseanne never really took off and people would boo even though I thought it was pretty clever, me going from sexy Madonna (hair flip/ pony tail/pointy bra: never gets old, bitches) and Cher (talk about never getting old: Cher is my spirit animal) to a fat frowzy housewife. Come on, she had the most popular show on television. You rooted for her. Everybody rooted for her. Roseanne was a heroine. Back then.
I’d lip sync to “American Woman” wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, the only concession being 5-inch pumps — because, hello, 5-inch pumps? — with a strip to a lamé version of jeans and a flannel shirt. Funny, right? A teased-up black wig and an exaggerated mouth. In the middle of the number, I’d usually let out a Roseanne-inspired, “Oh, Dan.” But it never caught on. “Sweetie pie, honey bunch,” Amber Skyes said to me once, “Tour Jetay is class. You’re high-brow. You’re drinking tea with your pinky stuck out. Roseanne is a bowel movement. And not an especially satisfying one.”
So Roseanne was a bust. Instead, I added Britney and Princess Di. And they worked much better. Sorry, Roseanne. I tried. But it wasn’t meant to be. Cut to two years later.
A dispirited film journalist in Hollywood is having a dismal time in this book excerpt. 2,777 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It sucked being on the Red Carpet again. It may seem exciting on TV, but in real life it’s a drag. It’s always at the end of the day, your feet are hurting and you just want to go home but, no, you’re in a scrum down. And you’re not even guaranteed the “talent” is going to talk to you unless you’re Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood or some other high-power purveyor of poop, which Renny Aucoin was not. Instead he was a low-power purveyor of poop, writing for Wonderwall and MSN. Could be worse, he thought, could be August and 100 degrees and sickening with the smell of perfume and sweat. Mercifully it was May and pissing rain instead.
He hadn’t done a Red Carpet in years, but the damn intern didn’t show up, and his editor threw it at him. What could he say? The venue was 6925 Hollywood Boulevard. A quintessential movie palace from the golden age, this kitschy Chinese deco gem upstaged only by its famous courtyard featuring an endless array of handprints dating from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks through C-P3O, whose imprint had to be reworked after Regis Philbin stepped in the still-wet cement during a broadcast.
Renny knew all this on account of his life-long love affair with movies. Since childhood they represented an aspirational universe, a shining city on the hill, and Old Hollywood was the Garden of Eden. He quoted movies the way others quoted scripture, and the Chinese Theater was his Vatican.
She wasn’t the predator. She was just the assistant warning starlets about him. 1,998 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I got the assignment not long after I graduated from Queens Community College. I was the only one that the school’s job center was referring: they needed somebody smart and discreet. I asked if it was the C.I.A. and the placement counselor laughed; they’d never gotten a call from the C.I.A. If I was so lucky to secure the job, I would be the personal assistant to the big man himself, a Soho movie mogul. It would mean taking two subway lines from Queens but the counselor assured me that the commute would be worth it. Who knew where I could go from there?
With my straight A average, I’d been hoping to continue on at a good four-year college. Stonybrook offered me a full scholarship but it was out of the question. We simply couldn’t afford it. My part- time bookkeeping job was just not cutting it. By then, mom’s arthritis was so bad, she could barely walk and Dad was already M.I.A. We called it that, a joke between my sister Amy and me. Dad’s days in Vietnam were over before we were born, and before he even met my mother. But the way he continuously referenced that time made it a daily presence in our lives.
He had lost too many buddies over there and, according to our mother, that was the reason he turned into a drunk. I guess it’s as good a reason as any. He used to make decent money as a mechanic but blamed technology for rendering him obsolete. But it was the alcohol that did him in. Last we heard, he was living in Costa Rica with some widow he met at the recycling center. Give him that, at least he recycled his liquor bottles.
That left me to keep the family afloat. Amy, already with two kids of her own, had moved to Texas of all places when her husband got a job transfer. So the timing was perfect when the Placement Center called. My interview with the office manager followed two days later. I had arrived early and waited over an hour in her office. The walls were lined with movie posters of the company’s artistic and commercial hits. I hadn’t seen any of them, movies were expensive and at home, mom preferred to watch the nature shows, though her body was incapable of moving, she liked to travel to exotic places in her mind.