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Escapade
Part Two

by Steven Axelrod

Will the two female indie filmmakers find an angel investor? 3,532 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustrations by  John Donald Carlucci.


A few weeks before Christmas, Rachel was awakened at six in the morning by a long distance call. "This better be important."

The deep voice on the other end of the line sounded amused. "I think you could say that."

"Who is this?"

"Peter Sandrian. When we were in eighth grade, I took you to Wollman ice-skating rink in Central Park. You had to hold me up the whole time. The insides of my ankles were practically touching the ice. I fell in love with you that day, Rachel. But I never got up the courage to tell you."

Rachel laughed, fully awake now. "Oh no! I had a crush on you for years. Why didn’t you ever call me?"

"Why didn’t you call me?"

"Girls weren’t supposed to."

"We blew it, didn’t we? We were idiots.”

There was a moment of silence while the reverberations of gratuitous adolescent heartbreak subsided.

"What are you doing now?" Rachel asked. "Where are you calling from?

"Cleveland. I’m married; we have four kids. I’m the new Chief Executive Officer of Sandrian Pharmaceuticals. Dad wanted to take early retirement, and I knew the business inside out, so now I get to work the sixteen-hour days with occasional trips to Des Moines or Omaha. It’s not quite as glamorous as the movie business."

Rachel had to smile at that. "The movie business looks a lot more glamorous from Cleveland than it does from Burbank, believe me."

"Actually, I’d like to put that theory to the test. I hear you’re looking for venture capital."

Rachel stopped breathing for a few seconds. Those two words, and the casual way he said them, finished one part of her life and started another. She knew at that moment her movie was financed, she would be in Paris by summer, filming it. The thought made her gasp, then she was breathing again.

"I know that films are a volatile investment, to say the least," Peter continued. "But my accountant would be delighted if I could show a substantial loss this fiscal year. Not that I expect to lose money. Just the opposite. I’m expecting to take home twenty-five percent of the gross receipts from the first dollar. I’m flying to L.A. next week. Do you have a lawyer?"

Rachel nodded.

"Rachel?"

She realized she hadn’t said anything. "Oh, yes, I have a terrific lawyer. Sorry. I’m a little dazed at the moment."

"Can you meet my plane?"

"Do you look the same? Will I recognize you?"

"I certainly hope so."

In fact she recognized him instantly as he trudged down the long corridor towards baggage claim. His body was slightly thicker, though by no means fat, and his face which had been attractively gaunt in high school had filled out. The total effect was friendlier. There was nothing intimidating about him now. He was also star-struck. He wanted to see the handprints in cement at the Chinese Theatre and the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. He wanted to go on the Universal And tour and was thrilled when Rachel pulled some strings and took him through the studio itself. He liked the drab sound stages and the sense of constant motion and energy. "This I understand," he said. "It’s a factory."

The most exciting event for Peter was dinner at Spago where the movie business had never seemed so appealing as it did from Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant. Spike Jonze and Sophia Coppola were just behind them. The Spielbergs were dining with Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson on the far side of the terrace, two tables away from Cameron Diaz. Somewhere among the three bottles of wine and the pesto pizza, while Rachel made sure to identify each new arrival (David Fincher, John Cusack, Sherry Lansing), Peter managed to work out most of the deal points concerning Escapade with her entourage. He wanted a monthly accounting and the right to check the production’s books; he wanted a fair share of foreign sales and ancillary rights. He had obviously done his homework.

Everything was going smoothly, and her lawyer Sam was ready to scrawl a preliminary deal memo on a napkin, when the subject of creative control came up.

"As general partner of the investment group responsible for the bulk of your capitalization," Peter said, "I think I ought to have some creative input."

Rachel’s wine glass stopped half way to her mouth. She was about to object when Sam stopped her with a quick and intense glance. She obeyed his silent command, sat back, sipped her wine and waited.

"How do you mean that, exactly?" Sam asked.

"Well, I’d want approval over casting, for one thing. But I’d also like to feel I had some broader control of the final product, even if it was only veto power."

Rachel couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

"He wants final cut."

"Now wait a second, Rachel –"

"Peter, you know the jargon. You’ve boned up on all that ancillary rights and foreign distribution stuff. You know what I’m talking about: you want final cut on my movie, don’t you?”

Peter smiled. "I couldn’t recall the exact phrase. But that’s right. Final cut."

"Forget it. The deal’s off."

"Hold on! If we’re going to put up two hundred thousand dollars, I think it’s only fair."

"What gave you that idea?,” Rachel demanded. “No one is giving us that much money, because nobody is going to have that much to say about how I make my movie."

"Your movie? That’s kind of a narrow viewpoint. I don’t just want to be a bank account, want to be your partner. I want to be a filmmaker."

"Well, you’re not. If you want to be a filmmaker, then write your own movie and shoot it yourself."

Rachel had raised her voice and people in the restaurant were staring at them. But she was too angry to care.

"I see," Peter said slowly. "Well, for a less significant investment and no hands-on management responsibilities to safeguard our liability, I’m not sure our group would be interested at all."

"Then take a hike,” Rachel ordered him. “The whole reason we’re doing this picture ourselves is so we won’t have to deal with rich guys who wish they were creative and fucking things up. I can get money anywhere."

"Well, you won’t get it from me."

"Make that a promise. Put it in writing. Then buy yourself some cattle instead so you can play cowboy. I hear it’s as much fun as playing movie mogul. And you get to shovel almost as much shit."

She pushed back her chair and walked out of Spago while three dozen eyes flickered over her in interest and then away in dismissal. She was a nobody, and her little tantrum wouldn’t even be worth a gossip item.

Stacey ran after her. While they waited outside for valet parking to bring their humble cars from some remote side street, she said, "So much for that idea."

"Would you take a deal like that?"

"I was a little shocked, I have to admit."

Rachel put her arm around Stacey’s shoulders. "Welcome to the world of independent filmmaking. I may never make a film, but I sure do feel independent right now."

It was strange: the loss of two hundred thousand dollars in five minutes had in no way depressed Rachel. Just the opposite, if anything. She had felt powerless for so long that any act of will, any gesture untouched by calculation, enthralled her with herself and made her happy. She was free, that was the heart of it, a kind of existential freedom but without the Gallic gloominess that dwelled only on gratuitous actions and ghastly consequences. Rachel had no idea why the French philosophers were so dour. Maybe it was all those heavy sauces.

Her freedom was anything but bleak. It stoked her with adrenaline.
As it turned out, there was good news a few days later. Her short film Development Hell had been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. If Amazon or Netflix bought It, the money might make up the funding shortfall on Escapade. For Rachel, the excitement of the trip to Utah had more to do with the details of travel than the glamour of the movie business. She liked organizing things – tickets and schedules, shopping and packing. Her new winter coat even on sale had cost almost five hundred dollars. She had hesitated over it for a few minutes at Barney’s in Beverly Hills because she hadn’t bought anything but gas and groceries for months. She had been tempted to invest much more in Escapade than her initial ten thousand dollars but quickly learned from Jim, Sam and others that such an indulgence ranked somewhere between incest and acting in infomercials as a Hollywood taboo. Better to look good at Sundance which might help her raise money there.

For Rachel and Stacey, it was all new, and it hit them very differently. Stacey hated it – the fake western look, the endless stores selling hand made sterling silvery jewelry, the real estate offices that were the default setting for greed when the Hollywood army decamped. Most of all she hated the crowds, waiting on line at coffee shops and theatres, making traffic jams with their giant cars. “It’s not a ski town,” She said. “It’s a ski town theme park.”

Rachel could see what Stacey meant. It was almost too picturesque, the old brick and timbered buildings rising up the main street, the mountain looming over the village – so perfectly arranged, like Disneyland. Rachel’s film was to be shown a couple of days into the festival, part of an early morning marathon of shorts at the Eccles Theatre. So she and Stacey had taken up party crashing as a competitive sport, hiding out in a restaurant bathroom for two hours so they could slip into the George Clooney shindig where Clooney himself, alas, was nowhere to be found. Then Stacey was gone, too, and Rachel was left staring into the snow, happy to feel like a real filmmaker, the center of attention (however briefly) because of her film, with the future swirling, dark and unknowable, just beyond the window pane.

The next morning, at breakfast, Jim was grinning. “Look behind you.”

She turned around. It took her a second to recognize the man standing there. It was Peter Sandrian. He was wearing a blue cashmere turtleneck sweater that brought out the blue of his eyes. His hair was longer; he was tanned. He’d obviously been out on the slopes.

“I’ve rendered Rachel Scanlon speechless,” Peter grinned. “I consider that a major accomplishment.”

“Peter,” she managed, finally. “What are you doing here?”

“He almost didn’t get in,” Jim said. “He was arguing with the guard at the door when Stacey recognized him.”

“I heard you had a short film in the festival and I wanted to see it," Peter explained.

“I want to sell Development Hell for fifty thousand dollars and put that money towards Escapade,” Rachel responded.

Jim raised an eyebrow, but Rachel only glanced at him for a second.

Peter sighed. “We’re willing to offer you a hundred.”

“Peter, you’re losing me. Did you say a hundred thousand dollars?”

“That’s right. It’s a level of capitalization we can live with. My group wants to position itself as the primary financial entity underwriting the Escapade production. And we decided to do it under your terms. Hands off — no creative control. Just like you talked about at Spago. That was a very shrewd bargaining tactic you used, by the way – walking out of the restaurant like that.”

Rachel laughed. “That wasn’t a tactic. That was a tantrum.”

“Well, it worked, whatever it was.” He reached over and squeezed her shoulder. “I saw your short and I loved it and I’m not even a Hollywood insider.”

They looked at each other. The party surged around them. Rachel was exhausted. She hadn’t slept more than a few hours since getting to Park City, and she could feel the bottom crumbling under her adrenaline high.

“And Rachel, I know I don’t have any control over what you’re doing, and I know you don’t want anyone looking over your shoulder, but I’d love it if you kept me in the loop,” Peter added.

She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Of course I will.”

Stacy found them a few minutes later, and they all hugged and drank toasts. Peter was a connoisseur of champagne and had learned everything about it he could from books and then traveled to France for tastings. Given his relentless single-minded dedication, Rachel was sure Peter would soon know all there was about moviemaking as well. It was his new passion. But for now they just drank.

It was raining when they arrived back in Los Angeles. Despite all their fundraising, they were still seventy thousand dollars shy of the amount they needed to make Escapade.

They settled back into their normal lives, Stacey calling her agent for breakdowns and driving into Burbank for auditions, Rachel back to work on her latest screenplay. Karen, the heroine, had two dogs. She never walked them; it would just be wasted screen time. And now that Karen was planning a pivotal trip to Alaska, Rachel was stuck with the absurd question of what to do with the canines. They had seemed like a charming touch. But they were taking over the script, just the way a big dog takes over your favorite chair. Finally, the simple and obvious revelation came to her in three words: cut the dogs. There was no reason on earth why Karen had to have the pups at all. It was just an arbitrary decision Rachel had made long before she had started the screenplay. This was something Rachel really disliked about herself. She had a talent for creating obstructions out of nothing, making rules and treating them as laws.

She sat upright suddenly. It was so simple and obvious. There was no law anywhere that said Escapade had to be made for a quarter of a million dollars. That figure had been Stacey’s idea, nothing more than an uneducated guess. In fact, one hundred and eighty-two thousand dollars was a good bankroll and it was sitting in their bank account.

Rachel woke Stacey up, gave her a cup of coffee and spent the day organizing the next few months. "It’s like buying food for the week with only forty dollars,” Rachel said. “You get the eggs but you skip the bacon. And even if I have to cut some scenes or revise them or add new ones, it won’t make any difference. I work cheap. Excited?"

"A little scared, actually. Are we really going to do this now?"

"Why not?"

"I’ve never spent a hundred and eighty-two thousand dollars before."

"Me neither. But I’m looking forward to it."
The next afternoon, Rachel experienced her first Los Angeles earthquake. She was sitting at her desk when the apartment house jolted. The worst thing was the noise, a deafening horrendous sound that must have been the earth, grinding against itself. It propelled her outside, onto the buckling road, under the swaying power lines. The quake lasted only eight seconds, Rachel found out later, though she found that hard to believe.

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She thought of her ex-boyfriend. Just that week she had read in the trades that Todd had been made Vice President of Production at Warner Bros. He was no longer an agent. It made sense. He would always seek more power, and buyers had more control than sellers. She tried to cut every reference to him out of her life, but he kept turning up. A week later she got a phone call from a producer and the first thing he said was, "Todd Richter gave me your number.”

She left a little silence and then said, "That’s not much of a recommendation."

"Anyway, he just gave me your number and bowed out. He’s not involved in this at all."

"In what? What are you talking about?"

"Your script, Sabotage. I read it last weekend and I said to myself, this is my next picture. That’s how I am: I go with the snap decisions, and they’re always right.“

"So you want to buy my script?”

"Nothing’s that simple. I can’t use your script as iss. I don’t have the budget for a period piece picture. Besides, World War II has peaked. With a rewrite, I can line up a solid package, take it to the market and be in production by summer. But first I need a script that makes things happen. Something current. Something hot."

"I see," Rachel said, starting to understand why Todd had given this guy her number.

"This is my idea. Set it during the Palestinian uprising. He’s an Israeli captain hunting down the Hamas agents. She’s the gorgeous Lebanese girl he rescues in a back alley, never guessing that –"

"Sorry, I’m not interested."

"Hey, I’m talking ten grand for a three-month option here. I’m talking an incredible opportunity for you. I’m talking –"

"Just be quiet and listen." Rachel’s voice, cold and impersonal, snapped him to silence so fast it was almost comical. "First of all, your idea stinks. Second, I don’t know anything about the Middle East. Third, I happen to like period pieces. Fourth, I’m about to start directing my first movie so I don’t need your opportunity right now. But thanks anyway.”

Rachel hung up, thinking that the phone call marked a passage. Just a couple of months before, she would have leapt at this offer. It would have filled her with hope. She would have done the rewrite he wanted, and it would have come to nothing: just one more waste of time and energy mauling her work to the specifications of idiots. But it was precisely that hope that had been killing her, the feeling that the one project she turned down would be the one that changed her life.

But she didn’t want her life changed now. For the first time in years, she was happy with her life just the way it was. Hanging up on the producer felt like hanging up on Hollywood itself, every studio and network, all the executives and producers, all the agents. She had one hundred and eighty-two thousand dollars in the bank and she had a movie to make.

There was a lot to do. Rachel and Stacey had researched things like the French tax and duty regulations and applied to the Centre National de la Cinematographie for a shooting license. The French Government had wanted a lot of detailed information which Stacey had invented with straight-faced authority. Date, duration and location of shooting in France, lists of actors and technicians together with their nationalities, total amount of expenses in France, and a certificate that proved real money had been transferred to a French bank to pay everyone. It was a massive amount of paperwork, and it convinced Stacey that she didn’t want to be a producer because it was the most tedious job in Hollywood.

Still, she had to admit some parts were enjoyable, like the casting. Stacey assembled all the actresses from a pool of her friends and acquaintances. Some of them were moderately successful. But the others were basically out of work. They were all sitting on Stacey’s living room floor and drinking white wine one evening, They had just finished reading through the script for the first time and it had gone well. It was much funnier when talented people delivered the punch lines. It was an oddly matched crowd and Rachel would never have expected them to get along. But they all had gripes and acquaintances in common, grudges against the same casting people, and laughed at each other’s jokes. The evening didn’t break up until almost two in the morning and by then a kind of drunken, congenial excitement about working together emerged.

But there was one unsettling moment, for Rachel, at the very end. Everyone but Emily had left. She paused in the door, bulky and solemn, with the cool night air off the ocean dark behind her.

"I am psychic," Emily declared.

Rachel was very tired. "Oh, really?"

"I get a very strong feeling from you. A pattern. You rely on men. You want them to take control. But they fail you and you fail because of them."

"But that’s ridiculous. There are no men in charge of this movie, I’m in charge and besides –"

"You will do it again. And you will fail again. But you can break the pattern. With the man who speaks for you when the others are silent. He is the only one."

She stared at Rachel. Rachel stared back.

"The man who speaks for you when the others are silent." The queer oracular words stayed in Rachel’s head, repeating themselves, incessant and nocturnal until dawn when she slept. Shallow restless dreams pressed hard against her eyelids, eyes closed against the sun.

Part One. Part Three tomorrow.

 

About The Author:
Steven Axelrod
Steven Axelrod is an author and screenwriter who has written for Gil Cates, Irvin Kerschner, Roger Spottiswood, Howard Intl, Hemdale, Concorde, Tapestry and Arama Films among others. Son of writer/producer George Axelrod, Steven is currently writing mystery novels for Poisoned Pen Press. This book excerpt is from his work in progress Hollywood Parking.

About Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod is an author and screenwriter who has written for Gil Cates, Irvin Kerschner, Roger Spottiswood, Howard Intl, Hemdale, Concorde, Tapestry and Arama Films among others. Son of writer/producer George Axelrod, Steven is currently writing mystery novels for Poisoned Pen Press. This book excerpt is from his work in progress Hollywood Parking.

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Part Two

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