When Jason and Annie’s screenwriting relationship turns toxic, he looks for a way out. 2,029 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
What little pride Jason had left after three-plus years of working for Annie headed south. She had destroyed him and he had let her. His date was right: Annie had him by the balls and the only thing that could change that was the threat of Jason working for someone else.
And that’s when fate stopped by for coffee.
A few months later on a plane ride, Jason met Aaron, a movie producer, and the two hit it off thirty-five thousand feet above Iowa. Jason was funny and charming and Aaron had nothing else to do but be entertained. Jason told Aaron about his failed TV writing career, his divorce, and his ghostwriting for a screenwriter. Aaron tried to guess Annie’s name but Jason kept it a secret. The two men exchanged numbers and agreed to get together the following week.
Over dinner, Aaron told Jason that he was developing an action-adventure script that was in rough shape and needed an overhaul. It wasn’t a genre Jason knew, but he agreed to read the draft. Jason had a few ideas about how to fix the script and Aaron flipped over them. He offered Jason five times the money Annie had ever paid him. After politely declining a few times, Jason finally relented and said yes.
When Jason told Annie about the new gig, she immediately shit all over it. She knew Aaron and explained how little respect she had for him, which was odd. Jason remembered Annie talking about how she’d love the chance to pitch to Aaron someday. When Jason told her how much Aaron was paying him, Annie had nothing to say except, “As long as you remember I come first."
At the three-month mark of Annie’s latest assignment, the studio started to get antsy and demanded the script. Annie started a series of angry calls and flurry of emails that blamed Jason and his new assignment for the slow pace when, in fact, he was juggling both successfully. When she accused Jason of neglecting her and her work, he just sat there silently listening again. At this point, four years into working for her, Jason realized that what had once been toxic only occasionally had become toxic 24/7.
The sting was bigger on this latest script when the studio jettisoned Annie and hired a younger and hotter writing team to come aboard. Annie and Jason took yet another break and didn’t speak for weeks. He finished his assignment for Aaron who kept returning for another polish. Jason was even dating more and getting his head straight. Then, as had happened a slew of times before, Annie dropped out of the sky and suggested they finish the spec.
She claimed her agent was “pretty excited” that she had a new spec to go out. But she never made it clear to Jason if she’d ever mentioned to her agent who her co-writer was. He knew the cold hard truth was that the spec wasn’t as good as it could have been. Jason always wondered if Annie had phoned it in all that time because the last thing she ever really wanted to do was sell it and have him bail on her. And he would have.
Jason knew the script’s failure was really all on him. He hadn’t fought hard enough for an interesting original story, trusting instead that Annie knew what she was doing. But after he and Annie had taken nineteen months to complete it, the entire enterprise was a colossal disappointment to him.
Annie’s agent submitted the script in late July, a time of year when Hollywood is almost universally on vacation. One by one, studios and producers passed. After a while, Jason deleted the bad news emails without even reading them.
Annie told him not to worry and that she’d “never give up on it.” But he didn’t believe her for one second. If ever there was a time for Jason to walk away from her, this was it. Friends, family, even Jason’s lawyer insisted he cut ties to her. But he couldn’t. He had long ago lost respect for her. And now he had lost respect for himself. Jason prayed that Annie wouldn’t sell another script so the decision to leave would be made for him. It wasn’t.
Instead, Annie sold another pitch to a studio, this one a comedy for the biggest action star in the world. )When he read the premise, it felt as if it came out of a shitty three-hour Learning Annex screenwriting course. He was disgusted at the mere idea of writing yet another of these types of stories. This time, however, Jason played hardball with Annie over his fee. Whether because of guilt over their failed spec sale or because she had come to rely on Jason so much, Annie uncharacteristically agreed to his significant pay raise.
Jason pulled way back on this one, treating Annie in a brusque and business-like manner. Annie tried to keep their collaboration light and fun, but Jason was having none of it. Because of this, Annie got nicer and went back to being effusive about his work. She even curtailed her yelling and stayed in a perpetual good mood during the assignment.
Annie confided her hope that this current script would do great things for her career which was foundering since she hadn’t had a movie made in five years.
One night she made Jason a generous offer. “Look, if you bring me a project, something you want to write with me, and suggest a producer and a studio to pitch it to, I’ll say yes.”
That’s when fate, like it had when he met Aaron on the plane, stepped in.
A few weeks later, Jason got a call from Brooke, an old college friend whose husband was a partner in a private Los Angeles equity firm with a lot of powerful friends in the entertainment industry. “I have an idea for a movie about a young girl,” Brooke told Jason, “one who struggles to make it in the world.” Jason laughed because it was so similar to the scripts he had worked on with Annie. Inbetween scenes for Annie, Jason wrote up an outline for Brooke which she liked a lot.
“What do we do with this?” she asked.
“Let’s find a producer you know to pitch it to,” he told her.
Brooke sent Jason her Christmas card list and he noted one particular producer, a recent Oscar winner. “He’s big?” Brooke commented, “I had no idea.” She would be seeing him in Aspen the following weekend and would gauge his interest.
As promised, Brooke reported his reaction from the ski slopes. “He loves the idea but has no idea who you are. He said he can’t take you with him to the studio.” The producer suggested they find a name writer to come along. It turned out the producer knew Annie very well. He mentioned a studio head who knew Annie and might love this material.
So far, so good.
Jason asked Annie if she’d be interested, and she agreed. A lunch meeting was arranged between Brooke and Annie to get to know each other while Jason stayed behind. They had friends in common and, more importantly, Annie and the producer knew and liked each other. In the meantime, Annie and Jason were advised to “play with the idea.”
Everyone involved said it would be helpful if Jason came to the meeting but he declined, figuring he’d be needed for the studio pitch whenever that would be. But as the day of the meeting got closer, Annie still hadn’t touched base with the producer or even confirmed with his office she’d be there. Finally, at 10 p.m. the night before the meeting, Annie left a voicemail message confirming.
The meeting went only okay. It was clear Annie had given no thought whatsoever to what she would say. Mistakenly, she’d thought she could simply charm her way through it. The producer was insulted and told Annie he’d give her one more shot to come in with a fully fleshed out story. A meeting for two weeks later was set. Annie assured Jason that, by the second meeting, she’d have significantly more. But as the two weeks passed, Annie refused to tell Jason what she’d been doing. Maybe something wonderful, maybe nothing at all. He had no idea which.
As before, Annie didn’t confirm with the producer until the night before. That was when Jason knew Annie would be going in with nothing. After the meeting, Brooke called and told Jason it had been an unmitigated disaster. Annie showed up late with: no story, no characters, nothing they could take to the studio. The producer told Brooke confidentially that he would never work with Annie again.
“That was our last shot,” Brooke said. “I guess Annie just couldn’t go through with it. Any idea why?”
Over the next few days, Annie called a half dozen times neglecting to leave a message. The one time she did, she was drunk. “Jason, it’s me,” she said slurring her words. “I’m sorry this didn’t work out. I’m just so scared I’ll lose you. You’re like a diamond. My diamond. And I don’t want to share you with anyone else. If you were to get discovered, I would never hear from you again because everyone would know how good you are. And I would just die if that happened. Please call me back.”
It was the most honest Annie had ever been with Jason. But it was too little, too late. Jason never returned her calls. A few days later he sent her a very short and simple email explaining that she’d blown it and he never wanted to hear from her again. They never spoke after that.
Jason, meanwhile, felt good about himself for the first time in a long while. He had walked away from a toxic relationship on his own terms. He took a long break from writing screenplays and sold a few magazine profiles. He met a woman and fell in love and started to rebuild his life. Things were looking up for him when…
The phone rang a few months later. it was Aaron.
“That awesome divorce script you sent me a billion years ago went into my spam. My assistant was cleaning out the folder and I’m like, shit, that’s Jason’s script. This thing sell yet?”
"Not yet. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about it. You wanna buy it?”
“Yeah, I do. It needs some work, but not much. I have discretionary money and the studio is looking for a comedy like this. You game?”
Jason did his best to mask his excitement on the phone. But he was jumping around the room. “Sure,” he said casually.
The script sold for more money than he had ever made before. Agents left and right called wanting to represent him – even Annie’s agent. Jason was hot again, but cautious not to take it for granted or make any of the rookie mistakes he had made before. He was happy and creatively satisfied. Life was glorious.
In many ways, what happened to Jason was not too dissimilar from another Hollywood tale: young male writer agrees to work with a successful older woman with a nice house that decades of consistent work paid for. Over time, he sees the woman he works for as delusional and incapable of helping her talented and ambitious collaborator. In the end, the writer tries to get away. Only Jason got the career he’d always wanted and didn’t wind up dead, face down, in Norma Desmond’s pool.