Craziness continues for a publicist, journalist and producer attending the Cannes Film Festival. Part One. Part Three. 4,208 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Larry Moulds, studio Vice President for Publicity and Marketing, had been there and done that. As a unit publicist, he had accompanied movies and worked his tail off, coming home exhausted, sick, and, worst of all, empty-handed. The Cannes Film Festival was an all-or-nothing deal. No matter how you spun it, if you weren’t a winner, you were a loser.
His boss, studio head Vivian Rakmunis, had threatened to send him but she hadn’t actually sent him. Yet. But if his publicist Erika Marks didn’t produce some buzz soon, his ass was on the plane. He picked up his office phone and dialed the Hotel Carlton. Larry realized that he’d be waking up Erika in the middle of the night in France. Fuck her. It was her job to be on call 24/7.
It took seven rings before Erika picked up the phone.
“I love it when you talk dirty.”
“Larry? It’s…three-thirty in the morning.”
“Vivian isn’t seeing any ink on the picture. You don’t start producing, Vivian is going to send me over there. And you don’t want me there, do you? So what about jury tampering? You invite the Cannes jury president back for a shtupp?
“Larry, I’m not having sex with anyone on the jury. Can I go back to sleep?”
When he hung up, Erika was sitting up in bed, wide awake and furious. The digital bedside clock read 3:40 a.m. She had to be up at seven to flack the studio’s entry Crimea. If Larry arrived, she’d give him the keys to the car, kiss him on both cheeks, take a plane home, and sell real estate. Between the stress and the jet lag, she was not looking forward to the all-important interview with Paris Match for the film’s spoiled star, Hanna Lee Hedson.
With a couple of hours to kill, Erika decided to pull out one of three bikinis, settling for a white one with a little more fabric in the rear. Wrapped in a fluffy terry-cloth Carlton bathrobe, she took the elevator down to the pool, almost completely deserted at this hour. The sun was not yet high in the sky, but she could already feel the heat. A gorgeous young thing in a white jacket with a name tag that said pascal came over and adjusted a chaise lounge for her. Maybe if she was very good, God would give her a French cabana boy before she died.
She dove in the empty pool and, for the first time since her arrival three days ago, felt refreshed. The immaculate water lapped at the pockets of her jet lag. She did ten laps, alternating strokes. Climbing out of the pool, she walked over to her chaise lounge, lay down, closed her eyes, and soaked in the warmth of the sun. Impulsively, she reached back and untied her bikini top. Why not? She was in fucking Cannes. If not here, where?
The next thing she heard, and she wasn’t sure she wasn’t dreaming this, was a mellifluous voice speaking French to her and warning that she was getting sunburned. She opened her eyes abruptly and saw not Pascal, but a tall Frenchman in a bathing suit with a short-sleeved T-shirt. He squinted into the sun at her. He had the type of sharply defined facial structure she had a weakness for. A lived-in face, with character. Belmondo, Delon, Trintingnant, in their prime. He spread his towel on the chaise lounge beside hers and sat down.
She soon discovered that she was sitting by the pool of the Carlton, drinking rosé, her tits to the wind, with the president of the Cannes jury, the French writer Matthieu Brioche. The guy Larry Moulds wanted her to invite to her hotel room. Instead, fate had delivered him to her chaise lounge. If she was ever going to wrangle a Palme d’Or and, collaterally, keep Larry out of her hair, this could be her opportunity.
A half bottle of wine later, she said, “You don’t happen to have plans for dinner tonight?”
“Nothing that cannot be postponed,” he smiled.
Jack Kemper, an entertainment online reporter at Cannes, finally looked up from his computer at the American Pavilion. His acute peripheral vision, an occupational hazard, picked up Erika Marks entering. Looking very nice in a pair of well-fitting jeans, a sweater with her boobs advertised, and Jimmy Choos. She finally noticed him.
“Oh, hi,” she said, squinting at him with recognition.
Jack pretended to immerse himself in some screening brochures as Erika, in a low but not low enough voice, asked the information desk to recommend a very quiet discreet restaurant, preferably with candlelight. Jack heard the name and address and memorized it. The publicist, as an afterthought, turned back to Jack and asked, “By the way, when’s the piece on Hanna going to run?”
“Over the weekend. They get more hits then.”
“Great. Nice seeing you.” She waved, convivially.
“Ditto,” he waved back.
The very quiet discreet restaurant could be a big nothing — some esoteric studio politics below the radar. Or not.
It was already Day Three of the film market when movie producer Charlie Berns, in Cannes trying to raise money to complete a partially-shot movie, finally showed up at the Espace Riviera. The choice locations were already taken. You wanted to be as close as possible to the entrance, where you’d get first shot at the checkbooks walking in the door. Where you didn’t want to be was in the sous-sol, with the third-world guys.
Charlie tried out what was left of his charm on the film market staff, explaining that he had actually arrived for the first day of the festival but that his luggage had gone astray. The manager was, of course, désolé and assigned him to booth 585B. Which was not only in the sous-sol, but in the rear of the sous-sol. He was between a Bangladeshi low-rent porno producer and an Estonian ringtone pirate. Right next to the crappers.
Charlie had received a telephone message from his movie’s Canadian periodontist investors asking him to call them with a “progress report.” What could he tell them? That he was busy at the film market watching people go in and out of the men’s room?
He went out for fresh air. It was the first sunny day since he’d been in Cannes. People were in T-shirts and shorts, eating ice cream cones, walking their dogs, strolling along the entire beachfront. Charlie turned and recognized the reporter Jack Kemper from the breakfast room of the Hôtel Charlemagne where they were both staying, unhappily so.
You get your film out of quarantine?”
“Yeah. Thanks for the advice.”
“Want to grab a bite?”
“I got a booth at the market I probably shouldn’t leave.”
“Doing a lot of business?”
Fuck it. He’d take an early lunch. Let the Estonian and the Bangladeshi direct people to the toilette. He and Jack Kemper sat in a café near the train station and commiserated.
“So, the action’s slow on your movie?”
“I’m going to screen it this weekend. But I need to get people in the door.” The only theater rental he’d been able to find for a screening of his footage was a fifty-seat venue near the Sports Complex called Le Cinéma du Paradis, a ten-minute taxi ride from the Palais. It was more money than Charlie had allotted and was less elegant than he had hoped. And it was available only at 8 am. Unless he got people to come see his film, however, it didn’t make a whole lot of difference where and when he screened it.
“How much money you need?”
“One and a half million to finish, another half for post.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s a World War I love story.”
“You know what you need? A Mideast arms dealer or an African email prince. They’ve got money coming out of their assholes and they love the movie business.”
“You know any?”
“There are a couple on yachts here, What you need to do is get invited to one of their parties.”
“How do I do that?”
“You know any good-looking women in town?”
Charlie shook his head. “Maybe I can rent one,” he said, joking. Or at least he thought he was joking.
“Why not? In this town you can rent anything.”
Charlie decided to look into renting some arm candy. There were plenty of women available by the hour, but they were beyond his budget.
At few minutes before ten that evening, Jack Kemper climbed one of the hilly cobblestone streets behind the old port. At this hour the restaurants were full of diners coming from cocktail parties and early screenings, diving into their 85-euro bouillabaisse, picking the shrimp out of their teeth and doing deals, their cell phones beside them.
Jack knew that hope was the staple that people lived on during these particular twelve days in May. Hope that their film wins an award; hope that they can find a distributor; hope that they would be discovered; hope that they didn’t do something really stupid in their sleep-deprived state or die of terminal jet lag. Just what Jack was hoping to do at Cannes was not entirely clear to him. Even less clear was why he was following his nose to see whom Erika Marks did not want to be seen with? And why?
The discreet restaurant, La Piccola Tavola, was down a flight of stairs at the end of the street. As it turned out, the restaurant was neither small nor quiet. But it wasn’t full of film people. Kemper stood in the doorway, then was ushered to a table near the door where a draft blew in every time it opened.
Meanwhile, he spotted Erika Marks, her back to him, at a table near the piano. Her dinner companion was facing him. Fortyish, intellectual, tailored sport jacket over a blue denim shirt and a token tie. Finally, the name of the guy popped up on Jack’s radar screen. Matthieu Brioche. Novelist, screenwriter, and…this year’s president of the Cannes jury.
Holy shit. Jack had stumbled onto a story. A big fucking story. Publicist for a film in competition, having dinner with the president of the jury in an out-of-the-way restaurant. If the French paparazzi got a hold of this, the photos would be on every movie trash website in the world by noon the next day. They’d run Crimea out of town and degrade Brioche in public.
Before this night Jack Kempe was just a guy following his dick. But now he had a moral dilemma: he would have to choose between Erika and the story. His career and his love life were treading water. Could he possibly save both? Could he get the girl and the story?
The Frenchman seemed absorbed in conversation with Erika. So unless she turned around and saw Jack, she wouldn’t know that he knew. But if she did know that he knew…Jack decided it was not worth jeopardizing his relationship, if he had one, with the publicist. So he took a 10-euro note out and quietly headed for the door.
What Erika and festival jury president were talking about was his family’s summer house in the Périgord, a sixteenth-century farmhouse overlooking the Dordogne and surrounded by forty hectares of truffle-infested forest. Fortunately for Erika, she’d had enough time to take a thirty-minute nap, shower, and dress with some care before she met Brioche for dinner.
She knew that sex with a man who was going to be influential in the selection of film prizes was, let’s face it, tacky — not to mention unethical. And then there was the performance issue. She was, frankly, out of practice. Lately, her sex life had consisted largely of quality time with her vibrator. It was going on a year, maybe longer, since she’d been to bed with a man. Of course, sleeping with Brioche would get her a Purple Heart from her boss Larry Moulds. Service below and beneath the call of duty, as far as she was concerned. No woman with an ounce of self-esteem would think about it. But self-esteem was a luxury in her life these days — a single woman past forty without much in the bank or an ex-husband to live off. She couldn’t afford an excessive amount of self-esteem. Just enough to get her through the day.
Erika was leaning toward ending up in bed with Brioche and could see herself waking up next to him. She would give up her life as a publicist and spend her days deciding what to make for dinner. They’d have a bunch of bilingual kids who walked to school and had excellent table manners. At night their artist friends would come by, smoking and drinking coffee, and talk about Jacques Derrida and Alain Resnais and whether life meant anything more than what it meant.
She was already beyond the ethics of the situation. If there even were any. Why couldn’t two consenting adults do what they wanted to do without it having any influence on their work? Here in France, people were much more broad minded about these types of things. Besides, nobody had to know. From the looks of it, there was no one in this restaurant who would recognize either of them.
Sitting in his overfurnished office nine time zones away, and unaware that his publicist in Cannes was about to take one for the team, Larry Moulds sat stewing in his own morose anxiety, His boss Vivian wanted to see him. Larry saw Ben Palombi, the studio’s head of marketing, sitting on Vivian’s atrocious green velvet couch, a thick folder in front of him. This couldn’t be good news. But then, had he ever been summoned to this office to hear good news?
“Close the door, Larry,” Vivian commanded, barely looking at him.
“So it looks like the Paris Match cover may run next week.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Vivian said. “I want you to kill it, burn it, and bury it. Offer them money if you have to.”
Larry looked from Vivian Rakmunis to Ben Palombi. Neither was smiling.
“Ben just got the test numbers back.”
The head of marketing opened his folder. “Bottom line, Larry, is that the worst thing that can happen to this picture is for it to win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In a nutshell,” Palombi continued, “we are discovering that 63.6% of Americans would be less likely to go to a movie that won a French film prize. That number goes to 71.5% when it’s a period piece, and 76.4% when it takes place in the Middle East. What you’ve got here is a perfect storm of negative factors. You have a film that takes place in a Muslim country, in the nineteenth century, up for Best Picture and Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. You win that prize, we might as well go straight to DVD.”
Larry took a deep breath and digested this information. He was being told that all the work and expense of having a presence at Cannes was not only worthless but also counterproductive.
“The only good thing we’ve got going for us is that a whole lot of people don’t even know that the film is at Cannes. Thanks to you. So, Larry, just fucking make sure we don’t win that thing, okay? How hard can that be?”
Minutes later, Larry was back in his office looking at his watch. It was after midnight in France. He picked up his phone and dialed the Carlton. The hotel operator told him Mme. Marks was not in her room. He tried her cell and got her voice mail.
Grabbing his IPhone, he frantically text-messaged his publicist in Cannes: “DON’T SHTUPP THE FROG!”
Erika had not checked her cell phone for over three hours. Which, for a publicist on location with a major film, could be construed as dereliction of duty. In places like Cannes, disaster was always one phone call away. She and Matthew Brioche had taken a cab back to the Carlton and had a nightcap in the bar for appearance’s sake. Brioche asked her, nonchalantly, what her room number was. She liked his arrogance. There was something very sexy about a man who didn’t ask permission to sleep with you. She gave him her room number, then wished him bonne nuit and headed for the elevator.
The first thing she saw when she entered the room was the message light flashing on the phone. Whatever it was could wait until morning. She stashed condoms in the nighttable drawer and went into the bathroom to touch up her makeup. Opening her purse, she saw the icon on her cell indicating a voicemail and a text message. A trifecta.
12:15 am. If it wasn’t Hanna, it would be Larry, just arrived in the office, riding a caffeine buzz. She could call him later. But there was something in Erika that would not let her go to bed, alone or otherwise, without checking her voicemail. So before she sprayed a little perfume around strategically and dabbed some toothpaste in her mouth, she heard Larry’s hysterical voice. She decided to call and quickly explain that with the picture’s Palme d’Or hopes were about to knock on her door. Larry picked up on the first ring.
“Remember your suggestion that I fraternize with the head of the jury?”
“No. You didn’t! Did you?”
“I thought that was the plan.”
“That was before the studio ran the numbers.”
As Larry hyperventilated over the phone, Erika heard a soft knock on the door. “Don’t answer the door,” Larry ordered, his voice suddenly peremptory. “Erika, you sleep with him and I’m not only going to shit-can you, I’m going to cut off your company credit card, get you kicked out of your room, and invalidate your return airline ticket. You’ll have to hitchhike back from France.”
Erika swore to Larry that she was not going to have sex with Matthieu Brioche, now or ever. By the time she got Larry off the phone, the Cannes jury president was long gone.
Lionel Traven-Travitz was sitting in the writer’s room of a basic cable TV show about extraterrestrial medical examiners when his cell phone rang. On the other end of the line, he heard Charlie Berns’ voice.
“Lionel, can we talk?”
At the tender age of twenty-six, Charlie Berns’ nephew was already singed around the edges. In the five short years since he had arrived in Hollywood, bearing a talky melodramatic script about the political vicissitudes of the 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli and watched his Uncle Charlie transform it into a Middle Eastern espionage thriller, he had learned how to be both accommodating and facile, two qualities that are key to success in the screenwriting business.
When the film had unexpectedly won the Academy Award, Lionel’s career had skyrocketed for a year or two before seeking its own level and, inevitably, a little below. His present job was on a non-union show with no fringes. So when his uncle asked him if he wouldn’t mind doing an uncredited rewrite on a script that he hadn’t even read, Lionel’s response was “Sure. Why not?”
“It’s for a film I’m producing.”
“What film? Where are you?”
“I’m in Cannes.”
“Like in France? You didn’t tell me you were going to Cannes. Awesome. What’s the film about?”
“World War I.”
“You mean like Saving Private Ryan?”
“That’s World War II. Listen, I need to introduce a new character into the middle of a film that I shot the beginning and end of already.”
“Got it. Send me the script. When do you need it by?”
“You want it good or you want it Saturday?”
There was a moment of crackling silence as Charlie’s voice bounced off a satellite somewhere between the south of France and the San Fernando Valley. Lionel did the math. All he had to do was not sleep for thirty-six hours. A case of Red Bull ought to do it.
“All right,” he said, his voice already resounding with its usual manic optimism.
Charlie sat uncomfortably on his bed in the Hôtel Charlemagne waiting for his nephew to phone. The producer had figured out that he could audition an attractive hooker for a part in the film rather than pay her to accompany him to a Mideast arms broker’s or African email prince’s yacht party.
“Uncle Charlie? I had to figure out the story first. You’ll have 50 pages by tomorrow night.”
“Lionel, I don’t need fifty pages. I need a couple of scenes to audition with.”
There was no point telling his nephew that his hard work would never be in the film. With any luck, Charlie would have the money to complete the film, pay back the periodontists, and continue with his erratic career as a movie producer. Why not? This was the movie business. Anything could happen. All Charlie needed to do now was figure out how to get an invitation to a yacht party full of rich people. And convince them to invest a million and a half to finish his movie.
How hard could that be?
Erika Marks knew that timid people didn’t survive very long in the publicity business. You had to pick up the phone and cold-call people, call them back when they didn’t return your calls, then e-mail them. When you were ignored or told to go away, you tried again. When you were told to fuck off, then you stopped. But damage control was a skill that required more finesse.. Cleaning up messes for your clients was a surgical skill. In the same way that doctors are lousy patients, most publicists were better at cleaning up their clients’ messes than their own, and Erika was no exception.
She lay in bed in her room at the Carlton and wondered what the hell she was going to do about last night’s fiasco. And what the hell was she supposed to do about Crimea now? How did a publicist ensure that a film did not win a film festival prize? They hadn’t covered that in her public relations training. She was being ordered to sabotage all the work she had done up to now. A mind-boggling thought. First, do no harm. Right?
She had tried calling her boss as soon as she woke up, six am her time, nine pm in Los Angeles, but he hadn’t picked up. Which, she knew, meant he didn’t want to talk to her. Larry would answer his cell in the intensive care unit. She picked up the phone, called Larry’s cell again, and left a message: “This is your suicide bomber in Cannes. Please let me know the target so I can blow myself up.”
With Larry continuing not to take her calls, she resorted to email. She asked him what she ought to do about the Red Carpet screening of the picture and cocktail party afterward.
Meanwhile, Larry Moulds decided to let Erika take the fall. She was there, in the field, doing the hands-on work. If there were blame to lay off, she’d get it. If it all blew up in their faces, he would say that she’d misunderstood his orders or, even better, that she hadn’t followed them. Gross insubordination.
Jack Kemper stopped by the Palais to scare up a screening pass to something interesting. He spotted a harassed-looking Erika Marks in front of him on the stairs. The two of them walked up together.
“So how’s it going?” Jack said, trying to keep up with her as she headed toward the press center.
“That good, huh? So I was thinking… Maybe you and I could have dinner some time.”
Erika stopped and caught her breath. She looked at Jack. Okay, maybe not a 10. But he was funny, which counted for a lot. And, okay, he didn’t have a country home in the Périgord. She could do a lot worse. At the moment, though, she wasn’t sure she was sane enough to even have this conversation with herself. Let alone him.
“Jack,” she said, flying by the seat of her pants, “I would like to have dinner with you. Really. But right now, you don’t want to have dinner with me. I’m not doing very well. I’m exhausted and emotionally vulnerable. And my feet are killing me. So this is not a good time for a relationship.”
“Who said anything about a relationship? I was just talking about dinner.” He smiled. He had nailed her. She was way out in front. Then he sold it with “And maybe a little sex?”
This time, she smiled. “How about a rain check?”
“For dinner? Or for sex?”
“How about we start with dinner?”
“Call me when it stops raining.” And he watched her walk across the lobby and disappear into the press room, leaving behind her the delicious aroma of possibility.
This story first posted here in 2016.