Two screenwriters try to hold it together professionally and personally during a pitch. 3,267 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“I think you should call me Efan,” Stefan said, yelling from the bathroom 10 minutes after they should have left for their pitch meeting.
"Why would you want me to call you Evan?" Chloe asked, hoping the answer would be short. She was getting anxious about the time but she knew from experience trying to hurry Stefan only made him dawdle. Sometimes Stefan put the “ass” in passive-aggressive.
“Not Evan,” Stefan said, coming out of the bathroom rolling his eyes like she was the stupidest person on the planet. “Efan, like Stefan without the Stuh in front of it”
“Um, why?” Chloe asked.
“Don’t you think it sounds edgier?”
Oh God, not that again, Chloe thought. Stefan was pushing 30 and concerned about looking “cool.” He actually used that word, which as far as Chloe was concerned, was as uncool as you could get. He was constantly tweaking and refining his image, looking for a way to stand out from the crowd of other screenwriters he was competing with.
For a while he had affected a vaguely Eastern European accent and casually let it drop that he’d been born in Croatia. That had backfired when they’d ended up in the same room as actor Goran Visnjic, who actually had been born in Croatia. Chloe had been hideously embarrassed but Stefan just rolled with it, explaining away the lie as “research” he was doing for a script. (“I’m a method writer,” he’d explained blandly.)
“We need to get going,” she said instead of answering Stefan’s question. “Traffic’s yellow all the way to Culver City.”
Stefan ignored the nudge. Chloe shifted from foot to foot with impatience and wondered if she should change her shoes, a pair of Ferragamo flats that had cost her a fortune. At five-foot-nine, Chloe was nearly six feet in heels and, short of hunching down like one of Tom Cruise’s ex-wives, there was no way of disguising her height advantage. She’d stopped wearing heels to pitches after the third time she realized she was looking down on a 20-something exec’s bald spot. She wondered why so many development guys were short. Was it some perverse version of natural selection that routed the short guys into development and the tall guys into production where you made the real money and got more respect?
“Are you wearing that?” Stefan asked her.
Chloe had tried out a lot of “looks” when she’d first moved to town — boho, vintage, hipster, geek, even rocker/bike chick. She’d finally settled on an understated style Stefan dismissively called “Rachel Maddow minimalist.” As if he thought it was an insult to compare Chloe to a woman who’d found a style that flattered her long lean frame and embraced it. Although maybe it was just his passive/aggressive way of insulting her role models. Stefan wasn’t much of a Rachel fan. Smart women made him vaguely anxious.
“So how did he end up with you?” her friend Becca had asked when she admitted this one night. “He went to Brown,” Chloe had replied but didn’t elaborate. Stefan wasn’t threatened by her intelligence because he wasn’t impressed by it. His attitude was a sore spot between them, his smug insistence that his mediocre grades at an Ivy League college where he’d majored in semiotics trumped the Phi Beta Kappa key she’d earned from a small liberal arts school along with a double major in European history and French. Not that Chloe’s degree was helping her screenwriting career any. It drove her crazy that a script about Joan of Arc had once sold for millions despite depicting a 30-something Joan whose dialogue was heavy on modern idioms. “Joan of Arc died when she was a teenager,” she’d ranted. Stefan had just given Chloe a pitying look. “Nobody cares,” he’d said, “the script’s been sitting around for 20 years. Nobody’s ever going to make it.” Then he’d launched into one of his lectures about how the movie business really works.
“Yes, I am wearing this,” Chloe said, because she was not going to play Stefan’s game.
Stefan always picked a fight just before they went out to pitch. It was the way he got his creative juices flowing. (“Get that energy in the room,” he said to her. "They can feel the electricity crackling. It’ll be infectious.") Stefan had a masters in filmic writing from USC and liked people knowing he’d gone there. And had the ball cap to prove it. He wore the damn cap so often Chloe was sure most people thought it was hiding a receding hairline.
“Those pants make your ass look fat,” Stefan said.
“Are you kidding me?” Chloe said, rising to the bait despite herself.
“I know you’re a stress eater,” he said, “and it looks like you’ve gained about five pounds of stress.”
“My measurements are exactly the same as Jennifer Lawrence’s,” she said. She hated that she knew that. When she’d first moved to L.A. and realized what was considered healthy looking back in Canada was about 15 pounds overweight in L.A., it had comforted her to know she still had a smaller ass than Jennifer Lopez or any of the Kardashians. She’d gone on a diet anyway, losing 17 pounds by cutting out carbs and exercising like a maniac.
“Really?” Stefan said, in that tone she knew meant he was skeptical. Chloe had to bite her tongue to keep from saying something snarky about the man-muffin he was sporting in his skinny black jeans.
Stefan was all about the image. Shortly after the Vanity Fair article on Caitlyn Jenner came out, he’d floated the idea that they tell people Chloe was transgender. “You’re tall,” he’d said. “And you’ve got big hands and feet.” “No,” she’d replied, thinking how much she really hated it when Stefan’s insecurity led him down the path of insanity.
Stefan and Chloe were late but blamed it on the gate guard not being able to find their drive-on pass. The reception area of the production company was as anonymous as a low-rent lawyer’s office, with whimsical art that looked like it had been created by a precocious four-year-old.
The Executive was on the phone when his pretty assistant escorted Chloe and Stefan into his presence. He acknowledged them with an exaggerated pantomime that said, “I’m on the phone with someone much more important than you, but I’ll be off in a minute.”
They didn’t mind. The wait gave them the opportunity to settle in, sip from their water bottle, and look around the guy’s office for clues to his personality. Chloe gave him points for not having the usual desk top cluttered with action figures, snow globes and other toys. He got a thumbs up from Stefan for the vintage Jaws poster. The movie had come out 20 years before Stefan was born and he considered it a classic.
“So,” the Executive said when he’d finally ended his call, “I loved Heart Attack.”
“Thank you,” Stefan said expansively. “We did, too.” The two men shared a fraternal chuckle.
Chloe wondered if the Executive had actually read their writing sample or just skimmed the coverage. “What’s going on with it?” he asked.
“It’s in turnaround,” Stefan said.
“Ah,” the Executive said. After a minute he added, “Matt McConaughey would have been great in that if he hadn’t gone all serious actor.”
“I know, right?” Stefan said.
Yeah, thought Chloe, who wants to win an Oscar and waste time making Emmy-winning TV and hilarious commercials when you can do another rom-com?
Silence filled the room like a fart.
“So,” Chloe said, “we’d like to tell you a story.”
She always took the lead when they were pitching and then Stefan jumped in at strategic points in a way that looked enthusiastic and artless but was actually very calculated. They’d found that when they started interrupting each other, it added energy to the room.
“Tell me the story,” the Executive said, and put on his “I’m listening” face while his very pretty assistant entered and sat down.
“Robin and Max are next door neighbors…”
“Robin’s a girl, right?” the Executive asked. “Not a Boy Wonder kind of Robin?”
“No, she’s a girl Robin, like Robin Wright Penn,” Chloe said.
“She’s just Robin Wright now,” Stefan said. “She and Sean Penn got divorced.”
Chloe shot Stefan a look that said, Whatever.
“Robin Wright was so hot in Forrest Gump,” the Executive said.
“And she was amazing in White Oleander,” his assistant added.
“So,” Chloe said, “Robin and Max are neighbors in a high-rise apartment building where no one really knows anyone else.”
“Think…Emma Stone,” Stefan said.
“No,” the Executive said flatly.
“No?” Chloe asked, ignoring the frantic gestures of the assistant. Well shit, Chloe thought, deciphering the semaphore: he must have gone up to Emma Stone at a party and tried to impress her with his “I’m a producer” shtick and she blew him off. Chloe was liking Emma Stone better all the time.
“So,” the Executive prompted, as if he hadn’t interrupted her, “you’re thinking who to play Max? Ryan Reynolds? James Franco? Justin Timberlake?”
“Sure,” Stefan agreed without looking at Chloe. “Justin would be great.”
And the next thing someone is going to say is, Chloe anticipated, what about Justin and Jessica?
“What about Justin and Jessica?” the Executive said. “Real-life couple? Bring a little extra to the party?”
Because that worked out so well for Sean Penn and Robin Wright, and Sean Penn and Madonna, and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Chloe thought. Why do so many real-life couples have zero chemistry when they’re sharing the screen? Except maybe for Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. They’re still hot for each other, but they haven’t made a movie together for years.
“Justin and Jessica. I like it. Kind of a Tracy and Hepburn thing,” Stefan added enthusiastically.
“Could he be French?” the assistant asked. “I really like Jean Dujardin.” She looked at Stefan with her big brown eyes.
Don’t even think about it, Chloe thought, scooting closer to Stefan on the couch.
“You know who else might be good for Robin?” the Executive said as if the Emma Stone faux pas had never happened. “Elle Fanning.”
There was a short silence as everyone considered the Executive’s awesome casting suggestion.
“She’s 17,” Chloe finally said.
“We could make Robin an emancipated minor,” the Executive said in a “work-with-me-here” tone.
“She’s a great actress,” Stefan said. “Blew me away in About Ray.”
“You’ve seen About Ray?” the assistant asked. Stefan smirked and tried to look modest. He liked being the guy who somehow managed to see all the movies before they were released. And liked telling people he went to San Diego Comic-Con before it was cool but that now he preferred Comiket in Tokyo.
“Elle Fanning is 17,” Chloe said again, this time with a little more edge.
“What about Rachel McAdams?” the assistant suggested.
“I love Rachel McAdams,” Stefan said. Chloe managed not to snort, no shit, he’d watched the second season of True Detective all the way through, swearing it was just as good as the first season.
“She was fabulous in A Most Wanted Man, too,” the Executive said.
“That movie made me sad,” the assistant said. “I just hated that we aren’t ever going to see Philip Seymour Hoffman in a movie again.”
Chloe hated that, too, a little surprised they had anything in common.
“Yeah, but if it hadn’t been the drugs it woulda been a heart attack,” the Executive said. “Did you see how out of shape he’d gotten? Guy was a whale.” His assistant scowled. “What?” the Executive said. “I’m only saying what everyone was thinking.”
Not everyone, Chloe thought. The Executive’s mind was wandering. He kept looking over at his iPhone as if wondering if there was a text he needed to read. The assistant could tell, too.
“Maybe this is a wild thought, but White Oleander reminded me. What about Michelle Pfeiffer?” the assistant asked. “It’s the kind of role Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep have been playing lately.” She turned to her boss. “You know, all those middle-aged rom-coms like Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated.”
The Executive pursed his lips. “What was the gross of Something’s Gotta Give?” he asked. The assistant pulled up Box Office Mojo on her tablet.
“Two hundred and sixty-seven million on a budget of $80 million.”
“And Michelle Pfeiffer’s prettier than Diane Keaton,” the Executive said.
“Um…Stefan?” Chloe prodded. He ignored her. She took a deep breath. “We sort of saw Robin and Max being in their 20s.”
Everyone else in the room looked at her like she was the biggest age-ist ever.
“Michelle Pfeiffer can play 35,” the assistant said.
“I can see Justin Timberlake and Michelle Pfeiffer,” Stefan said. “Or her and Jean the gardener guy.”
The assistant winced. Chloe wanted to tell her that Stefan was making a joke, that he knew very well who Jean Dujardin was, that he’d seen the rough-cut of The Artist and he’d bored everyone to death with his Cahiers du Cinéma-style appreciation of it. But it was too late. The energy had been sucked out of the room.
The Executive said, “It’s too early to worry about casting.” He looked at Chloe and prompted. “So Max and Robin live next door to each other.”
Chloe gratefully took the cue. “And one day Robin gets a letter in her mailbox that’s meant for Max and accidentally opens it.”
The Executive leaned forward, completely engaged. Stefan took over then, telling the rest of the story, acting out the parts with great animation and a lot of energy.
He really is good in the room, Chloe thought. They both knew writers who had made a whole career out of pitches because they were so funny everyone wanted to be their best friends.
Out of the corner of her eye Chloe could tell that Stefan was finishing up. So she came in with the finish, laying out the clever plot twist that allowed them to sidestep the tired old trope of having Max show up at the airport just as Robin was about to fly out of his life forever.
When she stopped, there was a pause. And then the Executive said, “I love it.”
Stefan and Chloe looked at each other. No one ever said they loved a pitch in the room.
“It’s so romantic,” the assistant said, “but funny, too.”
“That’s why they call it ‘romantic comedy,’” Stefan said giddily. The assistant laughed. She had a very pretty laugh.
Chloe was feeling a little giddy too until she noticed the Executive was gazing at them with a fixed expression that suggested either a sudden brain freeze or an acute need to find a bathroom.
Oh no, she thought.
“Could Max be an angel?” he asked.
“An angel?” Stefan echoed.
“Yeah, you know, like a fallen angel.”
“You mean like a demon?” Chloe asked, thinking, Seriously?
“No, no. An angel,” the Executive clarified. “Just an angel who’s gone to the dark side.”
Stefan and Chloe looked at each other again.
“Paranormal romance is still hot,” the Executive said.
“Sure, he could be an angel,” Stefan said, ignoring Chloe’s frowny-face.
“Or maybe…maybe it’s the girl who’s an angel and the girl is the guy,” the Executive said, really getting into it.
“So it’s two guys?” Stefan asked, confused.
“No,” the Executive said, “you switch the genders around.”
“That’s one dynamic we could explore,” Chloe said, at the same time thinking he’s a moron. “I’m not sure I see a paranormal element really working with the story we have, though.” She turned to Stefan for support. Stefan wasn’t looking at her.
The Executive continued to riff. “Okay, so this angel, she’s a dark angel, right?”
Stefan said, “Right.”
“And she’s on earth to, I don’t know; earn her way back to heaven. And when she gets Max’s letter, she sees a way to do that.”
“I love it,” the assistant said.
“But if she goes back to heaven, that leaves Max alone,” Chloe said, ignoring Stefan’s frowny-face.
“We’re just spitballing here,” the Executive said, a little miffed that she wasn’t playing along. He knew he was known as a “creative” producer and he took his responsibilities as such seriously.
“Maybe Max could be a fairy,” the assistant said. The Executive’s head swiveled in her direction.
“A fairy?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, “Vampires and werewolves are kind of played out. But fairies are fresh.”
“Isn’t Wicked Lovely being developed here?” Chloe asked. She knew the answer was “yes” because she had badly wanted the job of adapting Melissa Marr’s dark fantasy novel herself.
“You really think vampires are played out?” the Executive asked his assistant, ignoring Chloe’s question.
“So over,” she confirmed.
“Because I could really see Max as a vampire.”
The assistant shook her head, setting strands of her golden hair in motion.
This is a train wreck, Chloe thought. “If Max is a vampire, the whole movie would have to take place at night,” Chloe said.
“New York is gorgeous at night,” the assistant said. “Or we could shoot it in the City of Lights.”
She looked at Chloe and added helpfully, “Paris.” It took everything Chloe had not to say, “Oui, je sai, ma mère est née à Paris.” Instead she said, “The movie takes place in Pittsburgh.” She could hear the pitch of her voice starting to rise. “The location is integral to the story.”
She wondered if she needed to define “integral.” Not that anyone was paying attention to her. Both Stefan and the Executive are fixated on the assistant. The very pretty assistant.
“But angels could work, right?” the Executive asked.
“Angels could totally work,” the assistant said with a smile.
“Not in this script,” Chloe blurted, wondering if she’d developed Sudden-Onset-Tourette’s.
“Well, of course they’re not in the script right now,” the Executive said. “But take some time to think about it, knock the idea around. And let’s talk again in …”
He glanced at his assistant who consulted her tablet. “Two weeks,” she said.
“In two weeks.”
“Sure,” Stefan said.
“I love this idea,” the Executive said.
Chloe hated his idea.
Stefan had been driving with great concentration and attention to the road for 15 minutes before Chloe finally exploded. “‘Sure, angels will work?’ What the hell were you thinking?”
“He loves our idea.”
“No, he doesn’t. He loves his idea.”
“So he threw in some ideas. Now he’s invested in it.”
“Max is a working-class guy with family problems. Robin’s someone who needs to belong. I don’t remember anything about dark angels or Michelle Pfeiffer in there,” Chloe said. “And you know he’s going to ask for story credit.”
Stefan reached over to pat her knee, then flinched as she jerked away.
“Chloe…” he said, trying to catch her eyes.
“STEFAN!” she screamed as a guy blew through a red light and plowed into her side of the car going 60.
A passerby shot the scene and the footage ended up on TMZ because the other driver, who also died at the scene, had starred in a one-season sitcom back in 1997. Chloe’s parents were appalled and consulted a lawyer about suing. Stefan’s mother, though she tried to downplay it, was secretly thrilled. "Stefan always wanted to be famous,” she said with a teary sniff and a brave smile.
When he didn’t hear back from Stefan and Chloe in two weeks, the Executive decided to write The Angel In 2B himself. He sold it to the Hallmark Channel as a Christmas movie.