Heads spin when a writer and studio mogul start conversing during a pitch meeting. 2,160 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The writer stepped out of the glass elevator and approached the receptionist’s desk. “Richard Blow. I have an 11:30 with Heller and Nero.”
“Good morning, Mr. Blow. Please have a seat. I’ll let Mr. Heller know that you’ve arrived.”
Blow nodded and parked himself under the Rothko. He sat in the chair with a hint of a smile, looking focused but relaxed for what was sure to be yet another ordinary pitch meeting, filled with promise but ending in no result. The receptionist offered water. Blow politely declined. He picked up a magazine, the latest issue of Vanity Fair, and opened it to an interview with the actor du jour Tony Billings. At first glance, the article was the usual puff piece.
After a time, Heller appeared. Blow stood up, and the two shook hands. They’d met before, in previous meetings and on conference calls. They’d run into each other at parties. They had a mutual friend in a talent agent at International Artists. Heller mentioned over drinks at the Peninsula that they were looking for some fresh material. The agent passed along Blow’s name, calling him a super creative guy stuck churning out sitcoms but trying to break into features. He’d written three or four scripts that got some serious looks. He’s developing a story that sounds right up Heller’s alley. Sort of a romantic thriller. Give him a meeting.
Heller set it up through Blow’s manager after watching several episodes of the sitcom. The writing was pretty good — smart and funny. The story had a few surprises but nothing that suggested Blow could handle an original feature. Sitcom writing was formula writing. Features followed a formula, too, but the lack of strict conventions, established characters, running storyline, often presented a daunting task for writers accustomed to the series format. Still, Nero wanted fresh material and fresh faces.
Heller was more inclined to adapt a novel when it came to thrillers. He harbored some doubts about Blow’s romantic thriller, but was assured it worked on the level of a comedy, too. Maybe Blow would pull it off if the pitch generated some laughs. It had been ages since a truly funny spec script had come across Heller’s desk.
Blow had some comic chops, and the fact that he’d made it as far as he had in the sitcom grind was proof that he could deliver a conventional set up and punch line, a lost art for the current crop of writers that were all over late night television. Heller was feeling all right about the comedy, less sure about the thriller. The romantic would work itself out. It was mainly a matter of casting. What movie wasn’t romantic? They were always about boys and girls. Heller recalled that Blow’s real name was Head. Richard Head. Not bad, but Blow was good, too. It stuck with you.
Heller led Blow back to the conference room.
“Nero and the others will join us in a moment.”
Jerry, one of the film studio’s key executives, was already seated. He stood up. “I enjoyed your work on Pen Pals,” Jerry said.
“They made it easy, all the other writers,” said Blow. “It helps when you start out with great characters walking around in a Manhattan apartment in your head.”
“The balloon episode was your idea?” said Jerry.
“It came to him in a dream,” said Heller.
“Not exactly,” said Blow, smiling. “I was nodding off after The Late Show. I heard a loud pop. It sounded like an explosion.”
“My wife loved that scene,” said Jerry.
“My daughter in college loved it,” said Heller. “We’re looking forward to hearing what you’ve got.”
“Our other executives will be joining us in a few minutes. They wanted to sit in.”
A man and a woman entered the room and shook hands with Blow.
“Great to see you again,” said Tina, a young black woman with tortoise shell glasses. “I ran into Richard at a screening last weekend. What did you think?”
“Beautifully shot,” said Blow. “Great action sequences. I almost forgot it wasn’t Brad and Angie up there.”
“Almost,” said Tina, tilting her head. “Trying to please the bean counters, squeeze those above-the-line costs. No offense, Bax.”
“The trailer’s pretty hot,” said Bax.
“With Brad and Angie, it’s hot. Without Brad and Angie, it’s got a pulse, maybe,” said Nero, the studio’s infamous CEO and Chairman who had slipped into the room unnoticed.
With jet black hair drawn back in a short ponytail, Nero was of medium stature but immensely self-possessed, giving the impression of a physical mastery gained from years of intensive training in yoga and TM. He was both admired and feared by industry colleagues. Because Nero was not the typical Hollywood creature, born in the bubble of Tinseltown unreality, insulated from the ugliness of life. He was a man of the world and had walked on the wild side in places like San Juan, Marseilles and Phnom Penh. Before washing up on these bloodless shores, a castaway with nothing but grit and guile, fueled by blinding ambition and sabotaged by violent passions, he was now the picture of Zen calm and detachment. Indeed, Nero had the uncanny ability to take any pitch, any proposal, any would-be deal, and break it down, size it up, then render a judgment so disarming in its candor and truth that no one could help but graciously accept it. This was a talent that Nero had honed to perfection over the years.
Heller had sat in hundreds of these meetings and watched Nero eviscerate almost as many carefully crafted pitches with such speed and ruthless precision that the writers had stood up, shaken hands, and driven halfway home before even realizing their project had died. The feeling was described as oceanic. It would hit them while talking on a cell phone or stopped at a traffic light, and then the world rushed by them like a cool wave is how one writer described the feeling of clarity.
The group sat down around the table. Heller sat next to Blow, and Nero sat directly across from them. They shot the shit for a few minutes.
“How’d the virtual reality presentation go?” said Heller.
“Unreal. Pretty soon you’re not even going to need actors,” said Jerry. “Always need a writer, though. Right, Blow?”
“They haven’t figured out how to cut out the writer yet,” said Blow.
“Forget the writer. You can put them in a room full of typewriters like back in the day. Now, if you could cut out the director…” mused Heller. “I long for the day Alan Smithee takes a bullet for Hal 9000.”
“It won’t be today,” said Tina. “Hal 9000 doesn’t have a union.”
“They can play chess,” said Blow.
“My five-year-old can play chess,” noted Heller.
“No way a computer could come up with that Balloon Man idea,” said Jerry. “These days I’m thinking about video games. Blow, you ever try to write a video game? You open the door to the left, this happens. The door to the right, you’re fighting 20 ninjas and a hundred flying turtles. Blow, would you call that writing? I call it programming. The player’s supposed to be the writer. It’s participatory."
“It’s a revolution,” said Blow. “Overthrow the tyranny of the author, liberate the reader-slash-consumer. I took a course on it at Brown.”
“Video games are big, but the movies aren’t going anywhere. Fifty billion dollars worldwide last year,” said Heller.
“Blow, have you written anything for 4-D?” said Jerry.
“Not yet. I’ve been working mainly in TV. I have a few ideas. There are some interesting possibilities.”
“I’ve got an Imax feature going. The whole thing takes place under the sea,” said Jerry. “The first scene follows this diver down into this aquatic world with amazing rainbow colored fish, porpoises, manta rays, spectacular neon coral reefs, and then the diver turns and suddenly there’s this huge cloud of bubbles rushing past, thousands and thousands of them so close that the audience can practically feel them.”
Jerry paused, savoring his description of the scene.
“That’s beautiful,” said Blow. “What happens next?”
“That’s all we’ve got,” said Jerry. “That’s why we’re talking to writers. Shouldn’t be too difficult. You could probably write the whole thing on the back of a match book.”
“I’ll see what I can come up with.”
“We’ll do lunch,” said Jerry. “My assistant will set it up.”
Blow broke protocol and addressed Nero directly, to everyone’s amazement. “Your current marquee project is a film about sports hustlers being shot on the studio lot. May I applaud you on your choice of Tony Billings for the lead role? There was a chorus of dissenting voices that claimed he lacked the grit and gravitas required for the part.”
Equally amazing, Nero engaged the writer in conversation. “Yes, I have all the confidence in the world in him. He is one of my finest creations. The project itself was, as you surely know, a bone for the studio’s parent company. It was deemed considerably safer than our previous project.”
“You are of course referring to Fire Devil,” Blow said. “Shot on location in the Australian Outback, at huge expense, suffering numerous weather related setbacks, and, ultimately, loss of life.”
“In this Industry we are accustomed to such setbacks, even when, as is sometimes the case, there is loss of life. We know how to roll with the punches. If we’re going for the knock out, we have to be prepared to weather the storm. The board is averse to risk. These people are, essentially, aliens from another world. They are not of this place. They don’t know our customs or our business. To extend the metaphor, they don’t know how to stay alive until the later rounds.”
“Now about your feature,” said Heller, redirecting Blow to the reason for the meeting. “What age group are we talking about?”
“The leads are in their late 20s, early 30s,” said the writer.
“Young but not too young,” said Jerry. “Just the right age.”
“Adults, young and hot,” said Tina.
Nero put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair.
“I took the early bird out of JFK this morning,” he said, launching into a long monologue which quieted the room. “The driver picked me up in front of the hotel Mercer. The bellhop gave my bags to the driver, the driver loaded them into the trunk. I only had two bags — both were small enough to fit in the overhead. Over the years I’ve learned how to travel light, to pack only what is necessary and very quickly and in such a way that my belongings do not encumber me, so that they provide the barest minimum resistance and my passage from hotel to car to ticket window to destination is an essay in pure fluid motion.”
At this point, Jerry looked impatient, even eager to interrupt the boss.
But Nero continued his soliloquy. “And, on that flight, while I enjoyed a glass of water and gazed out the window at the infinite blue, my mind clear and weightless, a thought came to me. Less a thought than a picture of a face, male or female didn’t matter, the face was young, with clear eyes and smooth skin, the hair blonde but it could have just as easily been brown or red. What was more important was that it was a face I’d never seen before. An unknown. Young and clear eyed, unmarked by time or experience or the impressions of the world. A movie was playing. I didn’t know what movie it was, and I didn’t want to know. What I wanted, more than anything, was that—”
At that instant, Jerry’s head exploded. It happened so suddenly and unexpectedly that the first sensation of those in the room was an awareness of an uncomfortable pause in the conversation, an odd kind of embarrassment at reaching this impasse, the graphic nature of which was only now beginning to register with those seated around the table.
In the picture was Jerry’s headless body posed with legs crossed in chino slacks, one hand draped casually across a knee, the other still holding a Mont Blanc pen in the midst of an elaborate geometric doodle on the yellow legal pad. The event was surprisingly bloodless, especially at first.
It had transpired so seamlessly and without forewarning that no one noticed when, during the interval between the explosion and the realization, Nero calmly rose to his feet, pushed out his chair and left the conference room. When this detail emerged under hypnosis, Heller was reluctant to dwell on the matter but had to admit that he couldn’t recall Nero being present at the moment Tina reached across the table, dialed the receptionist on speaker phone, and asked her to call 911.