A down-on-his-luck social message documentary filmmaker is asked to work on a Reality TV show. 2,323 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The phone jarred Michael awake at 6:18 am. It was Eva, his sister and self-appointed agent, calling from her Audi on her way to the gym.
“You couldn’t wait until you finished your workout?” he said groggily.
“Today at 11,” she reminded him. “I sent them over your teen hooker piece and they love it. They’re eager to meet you. Now don’t screw it up.”
“I’ll be on my best behavior,” he mumbled.
“Don’t you dare embarrass me.”
“I didn’t know that was possible.”
“You’re such an asshole,” she said and hung up.
Michael got out of bed and brewed some coffee. He knew he should be grateful for Eva’s attempts to get him work, but reality TV? He had become a documentary filmmaker to make the world a better place, not to contribute to its degradation like his sister, who represented many of the worst offenders of the genre. “Reality TV,” she once told him, “is the 21st Century equivalent of the gladiatorial arena. The Romans loved it and so do we. It’s human nature. We glorify the strong and want to kick the weak.”
Michael obviously fell into the latter category. Unemployed for the last six months, he needed a gig to start repaying Eva the money she was advancing him, a debt that was rising as rapidly as the interest on his student loans. His first documentary after graduating from film school, a portrait of a labor boycott in the garment industry, had won the Filmmaker’s Trophy for new directors at Sundance. His second, about the homeless in Hollywood, had been rejected by all the major festivals and rendered him about as employable as the damaged and discarded subjects he’d filmed. “Why did you waste two years filming the poor and homeless?” Eva had asked. “They can’t even afford cable to see themselves on HBO.” Now Michael couldn’t afford cable either or the rent on the grungy overpriced Silver Lake apartment he might soon have to vacate.
He poured himself a third cup of coffee, showered, shaved and debated how to dress to disguise his financial distress. He didn’t have many options. His one decent jacket didn’t fit the image he wanted to present. It would make him look too desperate, as if he’d dressed up for a job interview. Ripped jeans would give the opposite impression: that he didn’t give a damn. He settled on a clean pair of black jeans and a white linen shirt because it was the only one in his closet still wrapped in plastic from the dry cleaners. Surveying himself in the mirror, Michael weighed whether to keep the diamond stud earring. He finally opted for a less ostentatious gold hoop. It was more in keeping with the image of a filmmaker who’d shot a raw uncompromising documentary about outcasts and derelicts. Although who knew how Eva had pitched him to her trendy clients or what they had in mind. He only hoped it wasn’t trainwreck TV that broke up marriages, or drove participants to suicide, or to run for president.
The producers’ offices were on Sunset Strip in the upscale part of Hollywood, not the grim parts where he’d shot On The Streets mainly at night with little available light. The aesthetic matched the subject matter. He’d wanted it to be gritty, jagged, and authentic. Why should he make it easy for audiences to watch the pain and despair of his subjects? He wanted viewers to squirm in their seats, to feel as conscience-stricken about their own safe comfortable lives as he had.
Unable to find a parking place on the street, Michael reluctantly drove his Prius into the high-priced garage beneath the building. He sat in the car a few more minutes before taking the elevator to the 20th story office. Arriving five minutes late seemed exactly the proper amount of disregard.
The producers doubled it, making him wait ten minutes more, calibrating their disdain as precisely as he had, or so he imagined. The wait acted like a shot of whiskey rousing him from his self-pity. Despite what he owed or promised Eva, he wasn’t going to compromise his principles for a paycheck. If he were going to sell his integrity, they’d have to pay a steep price.
At 11:15, the distaff half of the team came out to greet him. Shelley Gleason was one of those tanned twenty-something blue-eyed blondes whose looks once represented the standard of beauty in Hollywood. In today’s multiethnic Los Angeles, she was a vanishing breed. In another 25 years, Michael thought, the only place anyone would see women like her would be in museums. She wore white designer jeans, a form-fitting white T-shirt, and white canvas sneakers, all intended to suggest the purity of her intentions, he supposed.
“Excuse us for keeping you waiting. We were talking to the network.” Shelley tried to impress him even as she apologized.
Michael shrugged to show indifference, although her looks and body had in fact impressed him. Was she the secret of their company’s swift success? He was sorry he hadn’t researched these producers more thoroughly before this meeting.
Shelley led him to the back office to meet her partner. Phil Zimbaldi may have been a few years older than Shelley, or it may just have appeared that way from his two-day stubble of beard. He, too, wore jeans and a black silk shirt unbuttoned a third of the way down his well-defined chest. “Really happy to meet you,” he said, jumping up from behind his desk and vigorously shaking Michael’s hand. “Love your work. That teenage hooker piece was amazing. That scene when she’s standing on the street alone, waiting for her first trick… Man, the music you picked. What was it?”
“Phoebe Snow. ‘Mercy On Those.’”
“Yeah, ‘Men with no feeling.’” Phil finished the phrase of the song. “A fantastic choice. It killed me.”
It was the one decision Michael still regretted about the film. The Phoebe Snow song had been a temp selection he’d always intended to replace. He thought its lyrics were heavy-handed and manipulative, but HBO which had bought the only fifteen minutes of On The Streets that he could sell insisted that he keep it.
“Thanks,” Michael muttered. It figured that they’d like best what he hated most about his work.
Phil motioned for him to take the leather armchair beside Shelley and then perched on the front of his desk. “So what are you working on now?” he asked.
“I’m starting a documentary about Hispanic cleaning ladies.” At least Michael intended to start one.
“Wow!” Phil exchanged a knowing look with Shelley. “Did I tell you or didn’t I?” He turned back to Michael. “We are so on the same wave length here.”
“The growing gap between rich and poor,” Shelley translated. “That’s the heart of our new show.”
“What’s that amazing statistic?” Phil asked her.
“Bill Gates, Oprah, Spielberg, Lucas, and about 440 others own more than the annual income of half the world,” she recited with what seemed to Michael a satisfaction unwarranted by the fact itself.
“That’s the whole premise of our new show,” Phil said, sliding off his desktop and gesturing excitedly. “I don’t have to tell you that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting bigger every day. Bernie may be talking about it, but you’ve been there, man. You filmed it. You know it in your bones. No matter how much people bitch and moan about it, you don’t really see it on the tube. And if it’s not on TV, it ain’t real for most of the world.”
“We intend to change that,” Shelley said from her chair. “We’re going to introduce the rich to the poor in America.”
“Up close and personal,” Phil said emphatically. “Like you’ve never seen on TV before. You know Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris And London?”
Michael nodded, surprised at the reference. The only print materials in Phil’s office were the trades.
“Well, we’re doing Down And Out In L.A.”
“With movie stars,” Shelley added.
“Right. We put celebrities on Skid Row for a few weeks with just $10 in their pocket and no cell phone and see how they survive.”
Michael didn’t know what to say. He knew Orwell would be turning over in his grave.
“You ever see Armed And Famous?” Phil continued.
Michael admitted that he hadn’t.
“You’re not alone. CBS pulled it after four episodes. It was five almost famous celebs nobody would hire training to become reserve police officers in Muncie, Indiana. The show was crap, but there’s this one scene where La Toya Jackson gets tasered that’s pure gold.”
“You can still call it up on YouTube,” Shelley suggested.
“Why? Because audiences love to see celebrities forced to face reality,” Phil said, answering his own question. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to do on our show.”
“Only with A-list, not Z-list, stars,” Shelley hastened to reassure Michael.
“Imagine Robert Downey Jr. after a few days among the crackheads and nutcases on Sixth and San Pedro. Do you think he won’t want to score some coke?”
“Has Downey agreed to do this?” Michael asked.
“Not yet. But he hasn’t said no either. We’re not settling for nobodies here. We’re going after real stars. Think Mel Gibson: here’s Mad Max not trying to survive some fake apocalypse, but forced to confront the real deal. Imagine what Trump would’ve done on skid row if we’d signed him before he ran for president. Think of the ratings of a show like that. Reality rawer than you’ve ever seen before.” Phil stopped pacing a moment to imagine it, then turned back to Michael. “That’s why we want people like you on our team. To ensure the quality and integrity of the show. Right?” He appealed to Shelley for confirmation.
Shelley leaned familiarly toward Michael. “We know you haven’t done reality before, and we can understand why. A lot of these shows are porn — bad parent porn, bad relationship porn — but reality is also the one genre on TV which consistently deals with issues of class and race and poverty. That’s what we want to do…”
“Put with people you want to watch in situations you’d hate to be in,” Phil said, enunciating the tagline for the show. “Not in the fucking jungle battling snakes and crocodiles, but in the real hellholes of America. First L.A., then New York City, then who knows where else? It could be as big a franchise as CSI.”
“So what do you think?” Shelley asked Michael.
He stalled for time. “Celebreality,” he said dumbly.
“That’s right. Celebreality,” Phil agreed. “It’s a great opportunity for you to reach a mass audience about issues you obviously care about. Don’t get me wrong. Docs are great. But most people don’t watch TV to learn things. They want to be entertained. You’re a brilliant filmmaker and you deserve a bigger audience. If you want to change the world, then you’ve got to reach more people than you have been. And that’s exactly what this show is going to give you.”
Phil and Shelley both looked at Michael for his response. But “brilliant filmmaker” that he was was, he couldn’t think of a reply. “You’ve really sold this show to a network?” he asked instead.
“Ninety percent. We just need a few more things to fall into place,” Phil said confidently.
Like finding A-list stars crazy or desperate enough to degrade themselves for such madness, Michael thought. It might be, as Eva frequently accused him, that he was deceiving himself about his prospects in the business, but it was clear he wasn’t alone in his delusions. “Fantastic,” he mumbled.
“We’re really happy you feel that way,” Phil said with the enthusiasm of a teenager who had just landed a date for the prom. He turned to Shelley. “Did I tell you?”
“Yes, you did,” Shelley said. “You certainly called it.”
They spent a few more minutes discussing Michael’s potential role as cameraman/director, the “cinematographic texture” they had in mind, and the stars they hoped to enlist. “Can you picture Julia Roberts after four days without food, dumpster diving for a sandwich?” Phil asked.
“How about Schwarzenegger?” Michael suggested, cheered by the impossibility of the show. “Let him face the consequences of his policies.”
“Love it,” Phil gushed.
They tossed around a few more names of stars looking to rehabilitate their careers until finally Shelley rose, signaling the meeting had come to an end.
“So… I’ll wait to hear from you,” Michael said, relieved to escape.
“Oh, one more thing,” Shelley said as she walked him to the door. “We’re putting together a short demo reel for the network and since you’re coming aboard we’d like to borrow a little footage from On The Streets.”
So that was the real purpose of the meeting, Michael realized. To use his footage without paying for it. Well, fuck that! “Talk to Eva,” he said. “She’ll take care of it.” If she wanted her advance back, let her earn it.
Michael stopped at the reception desk and took out his parking slip. “You validate I assume.” The young man behind the desk looked uncertainly at Shelley. He saw her nod her head. The receptionist affixed two stamps to his ticket.
“Great to meet you,” Shelley said, shaking hands with Michael at the door.
“Absolutely,” he replied.
Exiting the garage, he discovered the receptionist had stiffed him on the stamps. Parking for the brief meeting cost $24; the stamps covered only half of that. With just a nod, Shelley had somehow communicated to the receptionist her real feelings about Michael.
Driving down Sunset Boulevard, he thought how to spin this meeting for Eva and explain why he needed another month’s loan to pay his rent. Maybe it was time to end his obsession with capturing reality. Maybe it was finally time to turn to fiction.