A writer has to get out of a movie job contract and off an exotic island. 1,918 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The next morning, Jenny Logan came to escort me to Jack’s place. She didn’t say a word about the job offer she’d made me to come from L.A. to this isolated island off Cambodia and write and possibly direct a film. But, as we stopped outside the steps of the beachside mansion belonging to the movie studio owner, a Luxembourg billionaire, I noticed cut marks on both Jenny’s wrists. They were obviously recent.
Jenny saw me looking at them. “I’m sorry if I’ve been weird, James. I think, when I get back to L.A., I’ll be my normal self again.”
She gave me a kiss on the lips, and then pulled back before I could turn it into something intimate.
Just then, a tropical rainstorm snapped into life and I rushed inside the palatial home. Jack was short, stocky and tanned but not even plentiful spa treatments could hide his fifty-something age. He smiled like a villain from a Bond movie and welcomed me inside. Of course, Jack’s bodyguard stood expressionless five feet behind us at all times.
“Thank you for this amazing opportunity, Mr. Hauser,” I said politely. I noted he didn’t offer me a drink, not even tap water. At least in Hollywood they offer you a bottle of Voss before they drain you of life.
“Yes, it is amazing. And thank you for accepting so quickly. Some people make negotiations so painful.”
“Accepting?” I asked, my heart rate quickly rising. “I’m still considering.”
“That’s not vot your agent said. Such a lovely girl. So easy to talk to.”
“What exactly did she say?”
“Come now, no need to play with me. A deal’s a deal: you can’t back out now.”
“Back out? I don’t even know what I’m backing into.”
“Sehr gut. Production begins in two weeks. We have you for one year with an option for a second year.”
My agent had fucked me.
“Sir, it won’t take an entire year to shoot and edit – ”
“That’s what your agent agreed to – ”
Fucked me severely. I had to find a way out of this. Perhaps I could make the mogul see that the project wasn’t ready and that I’d need a couple of months back in L.A. rewriting the script – and then never return.
“The screenplay needs changes. Production should not begin until there’s been time to rework the script,” I explained.
“What kind of changes are you talking about?” Jack said, genuinely surprised. “It’s a brilliant idea: three stoners from Alabama who accidentally find the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden.”
On the flight over, I’d read the first thirty pages before my eyes became glossy and closed for sleep. That was enough for me to know how dire they were.
“That might have seemed like a good concept once upon a time, but in 2011 bin Laden was found in the real world, and there’ve been movies and documentaries already made about it, leaving your story irrelevant. So I propose that we fictionalize the terrorist who the kids find. Maybe a North Korean terrorist who has the same obsession with Whitney Houston that bin Laden had?”
“Nein! That is a totally different idea.”
“Also, it’s supposed to be a comedy, so we’ll have to put more jokes into the script to make it funny. Because it’s lame.”
“Are you suggesting the script needs a big rewrite?” His face was beginning to turn purple. “I’ve already been learning my lines.”
“Which is why we should rethink my deal… Wait, what do you mean you’ve been learning your lines?”
“For my role in the film. I vill be playing one ov ze stoners.” His accent became über-thick with that line.
“So let me get this straight. You want to play a 20-year-old stoner from Alabama? How exactly is that going to work? Massive plastic surgery?”
“You’re supposed to be figure that out.”
This project was undoubtedly going to be a disaster, and the money wasn’t enough to make it a worthwhile disaster, and I couldn’t see any reason to listen to this lunatic one second more. L.A. – hell, even Hollywood – seemed a citadel of sanity by comparison.
“Sir, I’m not sure if I’m the man for this job,” I protested.
He just smiled at me. “You don’t have a choice.”
The blood started to drain from my face. Jack waved a contract I had supposedly signed sometime between my agent first making me the offer and my arrival at this mansion. I turned back to Jack, choosing to make a last stand and become these American filmmakers’ heroic leader: “What about everyone’s salaries? Can you at least stop withholding their pay?”
Jack simply smirked. “Mikhail will see you out.” Of course, his giant bodyguard was Russian. How clichéd. Although I will admit the Cyrillic prison tattoos on his pockmarked face did frighten me.
That afternoon I was lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering how I was going to get out of this mess and off this island. The thought of being stuck in isolation for one or two years making a movie that at best would go straight to DVD was too depressing. In L.A., at least I was living off the eternal cash flow that is hope. Here, there was no upside.
The fact that Jack couldn’t even be trusted to pay me what he owed me each week meant one thing: I had to leave Koh Rong right now.
Jenny came into my room and saw that I had completely unpacked my suitcase. “You’re staying?”
Concerned that we were being recorded, I took her outside and whispered. “I’m making it look like I’m staying.” I told her my plan was to get driven to the airport and claim that one of my suitcases hadn’t arrived. It wasn’t properly labeled so I had to go there in person and identify it. I figured the guards wouldn’t suspect foul play if they saw all my belongings still left in my room. It was only clothes, mostly from Banana Republic, and, if that was the price I had to pay to escape, I was fine with it. Most of them were probably made in this region anyway.
Jenny insisted I take her with me. This was her chance to leave too, she pleaded. I agreed and caressed her hair, hoping for a little action before we left. But she ducked as I went in for a kiss and said we had to rush as the flight was leaving soon.
The driver was the same man that picked me up. As the gates to the compound opened, there was relief on both Jenny’s face and mine. I looked outside at the Jeepneys and was disappointed I never got to try one out. They looked fun, especially if you were hanging from the side.
At the airport ticket counter, the airline told us there was only one seat available. Jenny looked at me desperately. What I wanted to say was, “I would have let you take it if you’d given me a BJ.” But even I couldn’t be that cruel. “Shall we flip a coin?” I suggested.
“Are you serious? I’ve been stuck here for nine months, completely miserable – suicidal if you must know – and you’re suggesting we flip a coin?”
“Well, you don’t want me to go through what you have, right? After all, you’re responsible for my being here.”
“It’s no wonder your wife left you.”
“It was actually my decision.”
“Yeah, you keep believing that.” Then she began pleading. “Do you know what they’ll do to me if they find out I tried to escape?”
The smart thing at that point would have been to simply buy the ticket for myself and get on the plane. But, for some reason, I started feeling something I hadn’t felt for a long time. Guilt.
“You could say I threatened to kill you as you tried to stop me from leaving.” But that answer seemed to irritate her even more. I was prepared to feel bad, but I wasn’t going to be manipulated into feeling bad. I turned to the woman at the counter. “The seat is for her.”
Jenny smiled “Thank you.”
“But I’m not paying for it,” I told her.
As Jenny went through the tiny security line and headed to the gate, I thought about my options. There was another flight out in three hours, but Jack’s security guard army would be suspicious by then. In fact, at that moment, the driver was entering the terminal, flanked by some men in uniform, and looking around for Jenny and me. They must have been wondering why we were taking so long to “pick up my bag.” I ducked into the men’s room as they strode towards the airline desk.
I waited in the hole-in-the-ground toilet. It stank beyond belief. I presumed they would next go to the gate and search the plane to try to apprehend Jenny before the flight took off. So now was probably my best and last chance to leave the airport. I had done my good deed for the day with Jenny: did I have to try and save her, too? I had to save myself.
I left the men’s room and headed outside the airport for the line of people waiting for the Jeepneys. I cut to the front and jumped into the first waiting Jeepney and hid myself. As it rolled away, I caught a glimpse of Jenny being dragged out of the airport by the driver and guards.
The Jeepney made a stop by the main port, where I stuffed local currency into a dock worker’s hands and picked up a boat that took me to the mainland. From there I made it to Phnom Penh where I caught a flight back to LAX. When I arrived home at my apartment, there was an eviction notice on my door. Within an hour, I got a text from my agent saying she was dropping me. And the writers strike was still going on.
I found it tough getting a new rep and contemplated quitting the business. But I wasn’t sure what to do. Maybe teach screenwriting in Portland?
One lunchtime, I was minding my own business and reading an article about changing careers while I ate my burger when a producer friend of mine stopped by my table. He’d never really had much success – always flirting around the edges of the industry, making short films and documentaries no one ever heard of.
But that was all about to change, he told me with genuine excitement. Because he’d just secured a studio deal. I was happy for him, because he really was one of the few good guys. He wanted to know what I was up to. I was honest and said I’d plateaued, especially since I got back from Cambodia. He was intrigued about my trip so I told him the whole story. He suggested we do something with it together because the studio wanted him to make movies based on real events. Maybe turn Jack into a monster threatening to kill me – and just flesh out the drama.
I wrote faster and with more conviction than I had in my whole life.
I finished the script in around two weeks, and my pal loved it. He said we’d have no problem setting it up at the studio. We just had to have it read by their new development exec – a young woman named Jenny Logan.