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.
Is Jason going to spy on his celeb friends for a gossip mag? 2,304 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Beverly saw Jason sitting at a corner table under the heavy drape of bougainvillea. He looked like his dad with some of his mother’s refinement thrown in. He definitely wasn’t movie star material but he was cute. Beverly didn’t like her staff to be too great looking. It made them memorable. Memorable was definitely not good. A few years ago, she’d had a reporter with a purple streak in her hair. Jenifer Lopez referred to her on the red carpet as Juicy’s Miss Purple. Subsequently, the reporter had been thrown out of a posh hotel in Cabo because Jennifer’s security people recognized the hair and knew she was a gossipmonger.
Looks are fine, but not too out there. Jason could blend in wherever he went.
He stood up when she approached the table. She never saw that anymore, thought Beverly, who would have raised an eyebrow but that expression had been wiped out by Botox long ago. Melody must have been awake enough during his childhood to get some manners pounded into him, Beverly surmised. Actually, he’d learned that from Big Jack. Stand up, look them in the eye and shake hands, but only if they offered theirs first. “It’ll get you laid, I promise you." Big Jack had been right.
Beverly went into her no-nonsense mode, shotgunning questions at him. Asking Jason what he did for fun. What he read. Where he went with his friends. And what he was studying. Then she got down to it. Did he know Selena or Kendall? What about Demi’s kids? Does anybody still care about Britney Spears anymore? Is Jennifer Lawrence going to keep so private she’ll fade? Which clubs were hot right now?
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?”
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.
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.
What if America’s creeps were cast members on The Simpsons meet Survivor? 2,158 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“An animated weekly web series.”
The producer didn’t say anything. Grover waited. He needed a sign. Fingers tapping, a cough. Finally – thank fucking God – the producer blinked. Grover dove back in.
“We’ll generate money from YouTube ads, a lot of ads, because I think this could go big very quickly. Affiliate marketing, merchandising, a book deal, DVDs, network, possible feature sale. But we’ve got to move fast.”
The producer shook his head. “Bannon might be on the way out. But he’s got Hollywood ties. So does Mnuchin. I don’t know if I want to go up against that. How many people have you talked to about this?”
“You’re the first,” Grover said. And that was mostly true. He’d pitched the idea to a producer friend at a Clippers game and the friend had laughed. “Yowza. Career suicide, pal.” Which didn’t exactly count as a pass, did it?
“Remind me of the one-liner again.” The producer took a deep breath.
“Lord Of The Flies meets Island Of Misfit Toys meets ‘Basket Of Deplorables’.”
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.
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.
A TV cameraman in the early 1970s finds and films two civil war stories. 1,675 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Paul was very young, only 20, and this was to be his first film. He had saved enough money to fund it by working as a TV cameraman at former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s TV station in Austin, Texas. He wanted to produce a short anti-war fable and he was excited. The Vietnam war was raging, and many of his friends were fighting, and some had been killed. Paul had been graced with a high lottery number, so he wouldn’t be getting drafted. But the war was constantly on his mind, and he thought his allegory using the Civil War as a foundation might speak to viewers. It would be done in stark black and white, merging his influences of Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein. He had projected a lot of their films in university classes serving as a teaching assistant in the Radio/TV/Film Department.
The story Paul outlined was simple. A wounded Confederate soldier is chased by a troop of Yankees and stumbles onto an isolated cabin in the woods where he is taken in by the kindly Old Man who lives there. Far away from battle, the soldier thinks he is safe. The Old Man shelters him, hiding him from his pursuers, binding his wounds and, when he is healed, watching him return to the war. The story was about paternal care and kindness found even in the heart of battle. It was also about the bleak cycle of violence in combat. There would be no dialogue: just simple action and emotion communicated through faces. And Paul knew that all his skills as a photographer and filmmaker would be required to pull this off.
He needed to find the perfect cast. His younger brother had a friend who was in the drama school at the university and would play the wounded Confederate soldier. The young actor was studying Shakespeare and Chekhov, all the great classic plays. Paul was lucky to have him.
He needed one more actor to play the Old Man, a Good Samaritan type. He searched for him everywhere. He wanted someone with gravitas and a special face. One day Paul drove up to a mini-mart to buy some beer, and an old man came out with white hair and a beard and eyes that almost twinkled. Paul asked him if he had ever thought about doing some acting because he had such a great face. The old man said he had done some community theatre many years ago. His name was Max and he was a beekeeper. Paul knew immediately Max would be perfect as the Good Samaritan.