The wannabe director must decide whether to keep working in showbiz or keep dreaming. 2,306 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
On occasion, while circling the office and delivering the mail, Max tried to engage the studio’s executives in a conversation about a film that had especially impressed him or a book that he’d found particularly moving. Right, Max," was generally the disinterested response. Then they would ask him to make sure that their delivery got right over to Parker or Simons or Goldstein or whomever.
"Ratings, Max. Concentrate on the ratings," one of the executives finally told him. The man’s name was Drew Oberlin and he was only a few years older than Max. He had a big office, designer furniture, and a secretary who could have modeled. Max stood by the door looking in, his hair matted, his shirt clinging to his underarms. Oberlin spoke from behind his desk. "Concentrate on the ratings," he repeated. "That’s what matters."
Oberlin was immaculate in a dark suit and white shirt that snapped in starched perfection when he moved. He offered Max gleaming white teeth as if practicing for an audience, Max his mirror.
Max returned the smile, hesitantly, with more of a grimace.
"I’m giving you good advice here," Oberlin said. "Never mind art. Ratings. That’s all that matters. Say, could I ask a favor of you? I have some laundry that needs to be picked up…"
At Max’s urging, Oberlin read Max’s screenplays and reluctantly proffered the advice that Max might write better as part of a team. "Your work, well, it’s got class. But you’re not attacking the center of the marketplace."
Max had been asked to attend one meeting at the center of the marketplace in order to stand by so he could immediately drive the Head of TV to another meeting when her driver failed to show up. She sat off in the corner with a tangle of red hair jetting out in every direction shouting, "I love it. I love it. It’s a great idea. Except that instead of these crazy Vietnam veteran Green Berets trying to kill the Mafia, I think they should go after the President. Then you’ve got something." And, without a beat, she asked, "Where are we on the cop shows?"
Now, in Oberlin’s presence, Max felt as if he were a child listening to someone much older and much wiser. "But I’m not sure I’m looking for the center of the marketplace," Max stammered. "And not in television. I want to make great films. I want–"
"Max, Max, trust me here," Oberlin said, shaking his head. The executive smoothed his tie and adjusted his collar. "Your work needs to be broader. Watch Happy Days; that’ll tell you all you need know."
All Max needed to know about what? Deep down he worried that Oberlin might be right.
Back at home, again, Max told his mailman, "I don’t know what to do."
"Keep plugging," the mailman said.
Max found himself a writing partner. He decided he needed someone younger and more outgoing, and believed he’d found just that sort of person in another of the mailroom guys — David Strongblock. Born in Los Angeles, raised by the beach, David was five years younger with a quick laugh, excellent teeth, and a manner that everyone loved. Max thought they were a perfect complement. Gindi and Strongblock. The names even had a nice ring.
They worked together for seven months, writing every spare minute they had. More often than not, it was Max who led the team, setting aside his solo attempts at film scripts to work on teleplays.
"We need writing samples, David."
"Whatever you say, Max."
"Look if you don’t agree…"
David held up both hands, palms outward. "Whatever you say."
David went to all the parties to meet producers, development executives, story editors. He went to get the team an oh-so-important pitch meeting where they would present their ideas in abbreviated form. With luck, they would sell something, or at the least be invited back. "You should have seen this house," was David’s familiar beginning the morning after one of those meet-and-greets. "You should have seen this house, and the babes. They were all over me. I took one out to the cabana."
“That’s great, David. I’m glad one of us is getting laid. Now who did you meet?"
"She shaved herself. No kidding. Completely. She could have been ten years old down there. But she didn’t feel ten years –"
"Who did you meet, David? You were supposed to be working the room," Max said.
"Believe me, I was working."
Max tried to be patient but, as he stared out the smeared window of his tiny apartment, he was jealous of his partner’s glowing descriptions of the gorgeous houses he visited, the wonderful food he ate, the beautiful women he claimed to screw. Max brought his lips together in a tight white line and lowered his head. "C’mon. Let’s get going on Act Three."
Finally, David came through. "It’s only a new sitcom. They’re not really sure what direction they’re going in."
"So we’ve got a good chance?" Max broke in.
"I think we have a shot."
Max’s lips became white and thin once more. "Then let’s not blow it."
"We’re in, babe. No problem."
In the days before the pitch, Max tried to get his partner to work harder. "Relax, Max. We’ll snow ’em," David announced casually.
"We have to be prepared. What if they don’t like any of our ideas? Bertolucci once said –"
"He’s not pitching here, Max. Just relax."
David thought everything they did was hilarious, especially his own ideas. "This is great. This is great," David kept repeating. "They’re gonna love it."
On the morning of the pitch, David was late. Max called and listened to his partner’s new voicemail message: "Hey, hey, hey. What do you say? This is Strongblock and I’m live on tape. I got a once in a lifetime shot to sail a Transpacific cruise to Hawaii so I’m off. Don’t bother with a message. Call me in 6 months." Beep.
Max roused with a start. A driver was honking repeatedly on his horn. Max thought the sound would kill him. He saw that the ocean was barely visible through a layer of mist which hung off the Santa Monica cliffs. From below came the hum of cars whipping along Pacific Coast Highway. Max was tired. He wasn’t sure he had the energy to get home. Maybe he would stay here on the palisades and wait until dusk.
There was no particular hurry to get back to his apartment, crammed with papers and notebooks and scripts in various forms. He had turned in his latest coverage that morning and had been given only one screenplay to read that needed to come back in a day or so. Max settled back on the bench. Eventually he dozed.
Following the Strongblock debacle, as Max had come to think of it, he resolved never to have a partner again.
"Keep plugging," the mailman advised when Max informed him of his decision to go it alone.
Max wrote and wrote and sent his scripts to agents around town as well as to some of the producers on staff at the studio. He began a new set of rejection binders which took up their own shelf. Methodically he catalogued each submission and each rejection as if he might learn something from them that would finally bring him success. The number of binders grew.
Max lived an increasingly monastic existence, cloistered in his small apartment. The windows grew so dirty that he found it nearly impossible to see outside. By day, he pushed the mail cart around the studio. At night, he wrote and wrote and stuck more Post-it notes around the apartment. KEEP PLUGGING, all of them read.
Max began to develop blinding headaches, and his neck and shoulders ached. Even the noise of the refrigerator’s compressor could set off one of these attacks. He unplugged the machine and ordered take-out.
No one was interested in his scripts. A couple of times there were nibbles but the deal never came through or the money that was promised vanished. Max saw people he’d met years before driving expensive cars. Once, Max thought he saw David dining on the patio of a celebrated French restaurant.
Then, one night, Max went to a film that proved to be a turning point — of sorts. He was outside the cineplex at a mall, unable to get a ticket for the sold-out show. Well-dressed and attractive people milled about, talking and laughing. Max wore worn sweats and was alone. He was approached by a man carrying a clipboard. Max’s first impulse was to turn away.
"Want to see a free movie?" the clipboard man inquired. The guy was at least fifteen years older than Max and had a grizzled look to his face and was lean to the point of almost underfed.
Max stepped back. The clipboard man moved closer. "It’s free," the guy said, going on with his pitch. "And there’s a little party afterward, kind of a thank-you for coming."
"Sure, I’ll go." Anything to make the man go away, Max thought.
"You can’t be in the Business though. Can’t work for a studio or a production company. No one in the Business can see the film."
Max hesitated. "I’m not," he said, deciding to lie.
"You’re sure?" the man said, looking at him closely. "I guess you’re not. I can always tell."
The movie was one of the ten worst Max had ever seen. But it looked okay. That was the problem. The technical end outpaced the story and the acting. There were holes in the plot big enough to drive a country through. Was that even a saying? Satisfied with his critical analysis, Max decided to attend the party afterward — if it could be called that with a few glasses of over-sweet wine, flat beer, and stale crackers.
He met a pair of twins named Larry and Harry Rubin, New York guys raised in the Bronx, the same age as Max. They liked him because Max laughed at their jokes. The brothers were small, no more than five-four, with male pattern baldness like a monk’s tonsure on their round heads. They talked fast. They talked deals. They talked money. They talked opportunity. They offered Max a job.
"We can only pay ya a couple a hundred, Max. Okay, say $250," said Larry.
"It’s a good reality show, Max. Singles. We’re doing something about singles," said Harry. "You’ll meet a lot of broads."
"He don’t need broads. He probably fights them off. Doncha, Max?"
The show ran a year and Max was given a writing credit. His first. He was actually making less money than when he delivered the mail at the studio, but he now was a writer on an actual TV series. He took a snapshot of the screen when his credit flashed by and he framed the slightly out of focus photo on his wall underneath a Post-it that read, KEEP PLUGGING. He pointed to it proudly whenever he happened to catch the mailman making a delivery.
"I told you, Max," the mailman said. "It was just a matter of time."
Max kept dreaming of one day making great films like the masters. He was convinced he had finally begun to achieve his goal. But as more time passed, he felt twinges as if the dream might be sliding away. It bothered him enough that when Harry and Larry sold another show — about videogames this time — Max hesitated before committing to work for them. They were on him like wolves with a fallen deer.
"You hafta, Max," said Larry.
"No ifs, ands, or buts," said Harry.
"You gotta do it."
"We need you."
"We really need you," said Larry.
"We do, Max. We do. We need you, bad," said Harry who was leaning forward, his hands balled in two fists as he made his final pitch.
At last Max nodded, yes.
"You’ll be the first one we take care of, Max," said Larry. "You know that."
"The first one we take care of," echoed Harry.
Max was indeed the first one they took care of. When a syndication outfit bought the program — raining a half a million dollars on Larry and Harry — Max was the first one they fired. "We don’t need no attitude," they told him. Max was promptly replaced by a just out of film school grad who was willing to take the job for just $200.
There was a sharp jab on Max’s shoulder.
"Gimme a dollar," the voice said.
Max was startled awake. He looked up into the smiling face of the homeless guy from before.
"I need it. Gimme it. I’m hungry."
For a moment, Max was this little man, begging for money, dressed in worn-out clothes, never sure where his next meal was coming from. In the next, he was furious. Who was this worm to beg from him, Max Gindi, writer, director. American Master. With a yell, Max rose to his feet.
"You want a quarter? You want a dollar? Come and get it. But you’re gonna have to kill me first, you piece of shit. You’re gonna have to take it from my dead body."
Max went on screaming, "Come and get it." His arms flailed. His feet stomped back and forth, grinding the tired grass around the bench into dirt. "Come and get it." Saliva beaded at the corners of his mouth, and a drop of spittle went flying to the ground. "Come on, you bum, come on!" Max screamed.
The homeless man said nothing, then, "You’re crazy," and walked away.
Max sank back down on the bench. He needed to rest. Just a little rest. Tomorrow would be better.