They’re Hollywood’s walking dead, deemed too old to hire. One writer fights back. 2,236 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Bernie Saffran made the mistake of turning 41 in Hollywood. He didn’t need to mark the milestone with a birthday party; everybody in town simply knew. Like an ice cube on a hot griddle, his name immediately melted from producers’ contact lists. His long-time agent Lance Steel (honest, that’s his name) handed him off to a trainee. His favorite coffee bar no longer let him sit at a window table. His multi-pierced sales clerk at The Gap suggested more suitable selections at CostCo. Here he was, nine years before he could join AARP, but the town had written him off.
He didn’t think it would happen to him, not after 20 years as a working and mildly successful screenwriter in the biz. If he could be gay or transgender or heterosexual and nobody cared, why couldn’t he be 41? But the Gen X and Y’ers named Jason and Kristin who ran the feature industry felt otherwise.
“You’re only as old as people younger make you feel,” Bernie used to joke. But when he hit 41, the punch line stopped getting laughs.
He tried to hide his age, of course. He turned his baseball cap backwards. He wore his sports shirt unbuttoned and let it hang over a Yeezus T-shirt. He listened to whatever crap his kids listened to on the radio – oops, make that the streaming audio. He sampled @midnight to gauge the lowest common denominator of humor even though host Chris Hardwick was three years older. Hell, if Lorne Michaels in his seventies could dictate the taste of SNL demos for generations below him, so could Bernie Saffran.
Or so he thought.
His new agent Casey had him slice off the bottom half of his resume. As for what Bernie’d been doing before 9/11, he was instructed to say "in rehab" since substance abuse was more acceptable to millennials than middle age. “At 40, you live on hope,” Casey had the temerity to lecture him. “It’s over for a writer at 41 unless you’re a recognizable brand. Maybe you can sell a spec, maybe you’ll get a service interview at Disney, maybe you’ve got a TV showrunner pal who thinks you may be a good fit in the writers’ room. But if you started off writing film scripts in your twenties, your peers now are selling second homes or teaching in Savannah. You’re considered dead.”
Bernie couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “In other words, as soon as I get good at what I do, they won’t let me do it any more.”
“It’s a bitch, I know,” Casey sighed, trying to sound empathetic while text messenging. "It’s only because of your track record and the past commissions you’ve brought in that you’re still repped by this agency. Tell you what — let me pair you with an up-and-coming younger client we just signed. He has some great new ideas but he’s rough around the edges. He can keep you working, and you can break him into the craft.”
“Let me think about it,” Bernie said.
The next day Bernie described Casey asking him to work with an "embryo" to his weekly Farmers Market lunch group. He also called in a favor and set up a pitch meeting at Universal. Bernie was welcomed warmly before the executive turned him over to the new development VP, Sue Cross-Band.
“I guess you and Paul used to work together in the old days?” she said.
“Is 10 years ago the old days?” Bernie joked.
“It is if you’re in the prime demo of 18 to 35,” she replied politely. “What do you have for us?”
“It’s a true adventure story set during World War II,” Bernie began, proud of his rehearsed but still spontaneous sounding pitch.. “The Nazis are winning. They’ve occupied most of Europe. Then a world renown movie star gives up acting and travels overseas on a goodwill tour to boost the spirits of Allied troops. In fact, he’s working for British intelligence laying the groundwork for the D-Day invasion and the defeat of Hitler. As he returns to England, his plane is shot down. All of D-Day is in jeopardy until Ian Fleming steps in to save the day.”
Sue took a thoughtful moment before asking, “Can we set it in modern times? Make it in the Middle East? Have the Arabs not be the villains? Include a Chinese buddy? And who’s this Ian Fleming guy?”
As Bernie got up to leave Sue’s office, something didn’t happen that was supposed to occur. She didn’t ask him, “So what are you working on now?” That was the traditional valediction. D-people want to know what’s coming so they can have the information first. Sue clearly thought Bernie wasn’t in the game any more so she didn’t inquire. As soon as he left the offices, Bernie called Casey and asked to be partnered with the embryo.
Robbie Piersall was 23, good-looking, athletic, and engaging. His ideas sounded new to those who hadn’t seen a movie in a decade. Only problem was he couldn’t write for shit once he got past the first act. It was to be Bernie’s job to take Robbie’s first draft and rewrite it into something professional. The agency figured that Robbie and Bernie – note the billing – could be a team like Cyrano and Christian. (Robbie asked, “Who’s Cyrano and why does he have to be a Christian?”)
Casey had them come into the agency for a practice session. Robbie broke the ice by chatting with Casey about how many Twitter and Instagram followers they had and whether Snapchat was the hot social-networking startup its founders thought it was at a value of $20 billion. Bernie cared little about these topics that so consumed Casey and Robbie, but he knew the drill. In his own pitch meetings way back when, they had discussed CDs versus DVDs.
“You know Bernie Saffran?” Casey said to Robbie. “I am so lucky to be working with you two. This is a team that has both fresh ideas and veteran craftsmanship. Now the development people will be thinking. ‘There’s quite an age difference, isn’t there?’ and maybe even ask you about it," the baby agent said provocatively. "How will you answer that?"
“I like working with younger people. Everything is always new to them and their optimism is infectious,” Bernie said.
“The next question," said Casey, turning again to Bernie, "will be, ‘Do you think you can write material that appeals to modern youth audiences?'"
“Audiences want to be entertained and respected. Between us — ” Bernie nodded to Robbie “ – we write stuff that has broad appeal.”
Casey turned his attention to Robbie. “Suppose a producer says they’re re-making Twelve Years A Slave set in high school. How would you pitch that?”
Robbie went into deep thought. Bernie had to keep from laughing.
“First,” Robbie began cautiously, “I’d take slavery out of it and make it about bullies. More kids can relate to bullies than to slaves. Not to take away from slavery, but it’s so 1800.”
Bernie no longer wanted to laugh. He wanted to puke. He also wanted to remind Casey and Robbie how slavery fueled today’s racism. But where to start? Never mind. He had become invisible to the two younger man-boys.
“Do you mind if I say something?” Bernie finally managed. “I was thinking it might be helpful to hide our disbelief in case someone mentions something as stupid as setting Twelve Years A Slave in high school. Why dig ourselves a hole appearing to go along with something that offensive?”
“Because," Casey replied, offended by Bernie’s sarcastic tone, "Twelve Years A Slave set in high school is actually in development over at Endis Pictures. But I guess that means you don’t want me to put you up for it.”
“Actually,” Bernie said, “I’d love to just meet the asshole with the idea.”
No one laughed. Bernie mistakenly figured more humor might help at this point. “We’ll drive onto the lot,” he said. “Robbie and I will give each other a last-minute pep talk, and then he’ll go in and do the pitch while I sit in the car and wait.”
Casey seemed pleased with that arrangement. Bernie grew alarmed. “Hold on a minute. I was kidding when I said I’d wait in the car.”
“I wasn’t,” Casey said matter-of-factly. “Maybe you’d better let Robbie do the pitching and not go in. Don’t worry. We’ll work out the screen credit.”
Bernie didn’t hear the rest of the meeting. The next day he and Robbie started their collaboration. Their task was well-defined: rewrite acts two and three of Robbie’s spec script Hunter’s Moon. Vampirism in people is triggered after a hailstorm by the lunar rays from an unusually close October moon. Or maybe it was the other way around.
Bernie stifled a yawn. “It’s Day Of The Triffids meets Curse Of The Werewolf. Is that what you intended?” Bernie asked as objectively as he could.
“Never seen them,” Robbie answered. "Are they in color?”
Bernie let it go. “Let’s talk about structure. The first act unfolds very well, but it feels forced on page 49. You could develop the scene so it pays off by, say, page 52.”
“That won’t work,” said Robbie. “The turn has to come on page 49.”
“That’s what all the screenwriting books say. The producers are going to expect it. Maybe in your day you could get away with waiting, but not any more.” Again, Bernie let it go.
A week later, Bernie returned from the Farmer’s Market to find a message from Lance Steele saying he was sorry but the arrangement with Casey and Robbie wasn’t going to work out.
But Bernie already knew that.
The next day he decided to change his hair color. He’d always considered a touch of salt among the pepper made him look experienced without appearing weathered, but he was no longer sure. Rather than try it himself at home, he asked his barber to do it. “A lot of people refresh their hair color, Bernie,” Alvaro assured him. He was careful not to use the term dye.
Bernie grunted as Alvaro donned latex gloves to prepare the coloring. “You and I both know that a dye job is the last step before a facelift, and a facelift is the last step before moving into the motion picture home.”
“If you can’t work in your chosen field, choose another one.”
“That’s easy for you to say. There’ll always be a job for you in a town that’s consumed with how it looks.”
“I wasn’t always a barber,” Alvaro said as he worked the brown into Bernie’s scalp. “My brother and I used to be in business together. We called it ‘reverse collection.’”
Bernie was intrigued. “You mean you were debt collectors?”
“Not exactly," said Alvaro. “My brother Miguel and I worked for a kind of insurance company combined with a skip tracer. We investigated the situation after most payouts. When somebody got reimbursed for, say, a broken leg, and later the company found out it was a fraudulent claim, we collected.”
“Did you bring them to court?”
“You misunderstand,” Alvaro whispered. “If they’d been paid for a broken leg but didn’t really have a broken leg, we gave them one.” Alvaro smiled at the memories. “Arms were the easiest. Legs were hard because you had to lie them down on the curb. Cracked ribs were the easiest.”
“Oh my God,” Bernie managed.
“Anyway, we had to give it up.”
“Oh no,” the barber said matter-of-factly. “We were accused of killing a guy. See, what happened was we decided to branch out. A woman called and said her husband beat her and could we teach him a lesson. We jammed a two-by-four in his motorcycle’s wheels so it wouldn’t move and we hit him with another two-by-four so he wouldn’t move. Somebody else came along and finished him. And do you know what the funny part was?”
Bernie shook his newly all-brunette head.
“The woman who hired us wasn’t his wife. She was his mistress. Miguel and me, we got cleared when her husband confessed. We never saw her again. The husband killed her, too. Now let me trim you around the ears.”
"It’s a hell of a story," said Bernie. “All these years I’ve been having my hair cut by a guy who used to break bones for a living.”
“Those people deserved it. Somebody has to get even with them before God does.
"Alvaro, you and I are going to sell your story to the movies."
And that is how The God Guys came to be made. Bernie set the movie in the modern-day hip hop music industry, then pitched Robbie and Casey who took it all over town and easily got a deal. When, predictably, Robbie didn’t know how to make a shootable script, Bernie did it in secret and without a writing credit. But he insisted on “story by” and a shitload of money.
Bernie would continue living comfortably on the residuals from The God Guys and its two back-to-back sequels and never dye his hair again. On Robbie’s 41st birthday, Bernie would send him a fake AARP membership card addressed to "Embryo." He figured Robbie, despite all his success, might need moral support at this transitional phase of his career. “Welcome to the club,” it said.
A week later the envelope would come back: “Member Unknown.”
Author photo by Liane Brandon.