Eric Bogosian debuts an original short story: A screenwriter desperate for his movie to be made puts the project into the hands of a famous and successful actor-director-producer. That was the scripter’s first mistake. 4,873 words. Illustrations by Thomas Warming.
Hopefully, this tape will be found some day. Probably by then it’s doubtful anyone will be able to play it back and listen to what I have to say here. But I have no choice. I have to tell this story if for no other reason than to preserve my sanity during these last few hours.
As I lie here, whispering these words to myself in the dark, I can only blame my ambition. Like Icarus who flew too close to the sun, I am being punished. Whether I deserve punishment or not, you can decide.
I’m not exceptional, I’m not special. In fact I’m pretty much a boring person. But just because I was a boring person, doesn’t mean I didn’t have dreams. And desires. And hopes. And fears. And appetites. All of that. Big time. And, in the end, just big enough to consume me. I went willingly into the lion’s den. I was going to dance with the lion. I was going to become a lion.
What the fuck did I know about being a lion?
Six years ago, when I was 28, I was writing for LA Weekly. Online. I wrote an article about a young couple who got lost while hiking around in Joshua Tree. They almost died. It was a pretty good story and, as often happens in L,A,, it garnered a phone call from a studio exec. Focus Features. I pretended that I had an agent and then got this old pal who was an assistant over at UTA to rep me and one thing led to the next and all of a sudden I had a development deal with Focus to write a screenplay based on my story.
I delivered the screenplay (after six outlines), and two days later the exec who ordered it got fired and that was the last I heard from Focus. The movie was never made. And over the past six years, I’ve been able to shuffle along and write scripts for a few other studios. At first it seemed like big money. Averaged out, week by week, it actually wasn’t. But hey, if they made even one of these films, I would have been in Hollywood heaven. Or so I thought.
Lying here now in the darkness, I try to remember the state of my life only one hundred and eighty days ago. It wasn’t bad. I was making enough money that I could afford to shop at Fred Segal every now and then. I could cover my girlfriend Sandy’s side of the rent. (She’s an assistant designer at a boutique on Santa Monica Blvd.) I drove a five-year old Prius. I shopped at Whole Foods up the street from where we lived. I played poker with other screenwriters and actors like Jeremy Sisto and David Zayas. I hit the gym twice a week. I watched my weight. I made it to 34 years old and was still young enough to be “promising.” I guess I’ll never be 35.
I was floating in a dimension that had no past, no future.
And then one day, in the shower, I came up with an idea. Simple, elegant, perfect. A narrative about a returning veteran who becomes a New York City parole officer. Gritty. Full of action. A great role for a macho actor in his thirties. And it could be made for a budget. Easily shot in less than two months. Violent but also filled with pathos.
It was everything I needed to get closer to the sun.
Full disclosure: I knew nothing about the Middle East, combat, the strata of the military and the inner-workings of the criminal justice system. And I had been to New York City only two times, when I was in college. But hey, that’s what research is for.
I knew how to get it into the right hands. Six years earlier, I would have had no idea how to capitalize on my idea. But now I had grown. I was ready. Ready for the big time. Ready to move up. To get what I thought I always wanted. To make some real money. To get a real credit on a picture. Perhaps to be celebrated. To win an award! To give an interview!
Deep down this is what I really lived for. Who gave a shit about a lackluster wannabe designer girlfriend or the dusty sunless apartment or hanging out in a gym filled with the aroma of chesty actors? Fuck all that! I wanted the life that rose above it all. I wanted the thick Egyptian cotton towels and the walls of plate glass and playful non-intellectual girlfriends with perfect teeth and flawless necks! I wanted vacations in Hawaii. Fuck, a home in Hawaii! I wanted purity and cleanliness and, more than any of it, I wanted people treating me the way I should be treated. Agents, producers, studio execs bowing before me.
Like a demi-god.
Otherwise, why had I been bothering with any of this in the first place? Right?
So, I made my move. And it worked out surprisingly well. I got one rejection (Ben Stiller) and then, unbelievably, my agent set up a meeting with the Monster. I’ll admit, when I walked into the room and was dazzled by his face for the first time, it was almost overwhelming. It was hard to digest the fact that this great star was existing in the same dimension as the one I occupied. It was daunting. This man was not a demi-god, he was a god. An actor-star who directed films. And now he would be directing my script.
He could star in it and he could direct it. He could produce it for a price because everyone, everywhere, would bend over backwards to make him happy. DPs and designers would work for him for a pittance. Studios would hand him their soundstages for cost. Any starlet not currently committed to a feature would co-star for nothing more than minimum SAG-AFTRA wages.
I had one foot inside the gates of heaven. Or so I thought.
There’s an old episode of The Twilight Zone in which this petty criminal dies and, thinking that he has ended up in “the good place,” is ushered into the land of his dreams by a man named “Pip” (played by Sebastian Cabot dressed in white tails). The petty criminal gets his hands on all the cash he wants, makes it with all the buxom girls, and, whenever he gambles, he wins. After a while, the guy gets bored getting everything he wants all the time. Tired of hanging out in what he thinks is “heaven,” he pleads with “Pip” to be sent to “The Other Place.” The great Sebastian Cabot chorkles a maniacal laugh. “This is The Other Place!”
I wish my Hell had been so easy.
Footnote: The Monster is both highly intelligent and hardworking. When you are in his presence, his eyes bore into you like those massive coal-mining drill heads that go round and round with zillions of sharp teeth. You feel him reading your mind. It’s easy to feel powerless in the Monster’s presence.
Yeah, like that.
And when confronted with that level of intensity, anyone would assume that intelligence is not far behind. And it is. But it is a perverse intelligence, dedicated to the whims of a sociopath. It’s a big mistake to assume that intelligence is logical, or “good.” I’m sure the Marquis de Sade had a very high IQ.
Today I can say for sure that in the great mass-media hierarchy only the truly insane make it to the top and want to stay there.
But I didn’t know any of that, obviously. I was charged up with this incredible opportunity to see my dreams realized.
After our first meeting, we made an agreement that he would direct and maybe star. Of course, I was hoping that the Monster would play the lead role in my film. I understood that he directed movies now and then. (I wasn’t his biggest fan on that score.)
Certainly, if he played the lead, there was no doubt that this film would get released and be an Oscar contender. No doubt.
But I had missed something along the way. What do you give the man who has everything? Who has all the cash, power, accolades, awards, lovers, houses, boats, cocaine, jewelry, muscles, etcetera etcetera? What more could he want?
Anarchy. The world in flames all around him.
And in this case, to get to where he wanted to go, the Monster had to invite in someone else to play the lead. He broke the news to me in a five-minute phone call he made while he was getting a massage. Someone interesting. Someone he felt fully comfortable with. Someone with a serious methamphetamine habit. And so it came to pass. The Monster would not be acting in my film. But, still, he brought so much to the project! And I trusted his instincts!
In order to mine those instincts, the first thing the Monster and I had to do was spend some time alone together. So we could “think.” So we could merge our souls, which in turn would lead us to a higher plane of creativity so that our collective effort (me screenwriting, him directing) would only become stronger and more successful.
His intelligence is voluminous and penetrating. He remembered (how is that possible?) that I had written the Joshua Tree article in LA Weekly six years before. So, seeking purification, he and I headed for Joshua Tree National Park.
He picked me up at six am in his 1966 Scout 4×4, which he had purchased just for this occasion. The ride was surprisingly easy, the Monster revealing a new side to himself as he regaled me with stories of his innumerable conquests of starlets over the years. Of course I hung on his every word. I had heard rumors, but here was gritty truth straight from the source! The familiar names came fast and furious: Uma, Kim, Robin, Melanie! Wow, wow and wow! He even tucked in a story about dropping acid with Jane!
Even though I had written a six thousand word piece on Joshua Tree about a couple getting lost there, I had never actually visited the park. So I was surprised by how sort of nothing it was. The boulders were nice and so were the actual Joshua Trees, but other than that, there wasn’t a lot going on there. The Monster found a parking spot near Skull Rock. Lots of people around. More like Disneyland than a desert.
The crowd was mainly congregated around the collections of massive rock formations. We made our way past them and trekked into the desert proper, leaving civilization behind us as we made our way over a low ridge then climbed a steep slope dotted with small boulders and cacti. Pretty.
Scaling the top of the ridge, I was breathing a little heavier than usual. The Monster gazed at me with his deep-penetrating all-knowing blue eyes and passed me his water bottle. We descended down into the valley below us.
The still and silent ravine was surrounded by rocky cliff walls. The Monster insisted we clamber up and down the steep slopes searching for a “hidden cabin” he claimed was there. Finally, finding no cabin and exhausted from all the climbing, we found a shady spot and sat. We drank more water. Of course we hadn’t brought any food.
There were bees attending to desert flowers not far from where we sat. Their buzzing grew very loud. The Monster said nothing. I mentioned the roaring of the bees. He said my perception was probably enhanced. “Enhanced?” I asked.
“Well, yes, because of the mescaline in the water.”
The bees grew louder. The sky turned a shade bluer. Then I noticed how hot the sun was. I felt panic grow in the pit of my stomach. The Monster looked as serene as a stone Buddha.
“Dude,” he said. “We’ve been here before. Many times. In many lives.”
I started to run. I had completely lost my bearings. The broken rock and pebbles skidded under my feet. I finally realized I didn’t know where I was running or whether I was running away from something or toward something. I found myself at the bottom of the valley or ravine or whatever the fuck it was. And when I looked back up the slope, the Monster was nowhere to be seen. I was alone. In the middle of Joshua Tree National Park. Tripping my balls off.
Joshua Trees look even weirder when you are tripping.
Long story short, the park rangers found me twenty-six hours later. I was dehydrated and hungry but OK. Crazy how lost you can get only a stone’s throw from a car park in a national park. I was never really that frightened. Once the tripping died down, I was more concerned about the Monster than myself. Didn’t want to lose him! Ha. Joke was on me.
Back in Los Angeles, when I finally made it home, turns out that Sandy wasn’t concerned because she knew that I had gone to the desert with the Monster and he was famous for his “parties.” She had simply assumed we had lit out for Vegas after our desert soiree. I made an appointment to see the Monster at his bungalow on the Paramount lot. Upon entering the room and seeing him sitting there all placid and beatific, I knew that if I made a stink, I would have failed “the test.” So I didn’t even mention it.
We just sat down and continued our breakdown of the script as if nothing had happened. Except that about a half hour into our meeting, while his assistant Gretchen was reviewing her notes on the Second Act, I caught him gazing at me. And… I know this is going to sound fucked-up, I felt special. Like we had a secret that made us like lovers or something and only a few (more like twenty dozen) people got to get that close to his magnificence.
Once we had the script re-outlined and annotated and I was preparing to go back to my airless West Hollywood tomb to begin rewrites per his specifications, the Monster felt it was a good time for me to meet Christopher, the wonderfully colorful actor who was going to star.
Did I say “colorful”? Notorious is more like it.
Christopher could no longer accept any location work because no bond company would insure a film in which he played a leading role. Well, they would insure the film, but only with the covenant that Christopher have no access to motor vehicles while on or near the set or on or near housing. Which pretty much guaranteed that no film could have him. Among Christopher’s various legendary exploits was his mythological night of smoking crack with a second AD. The second suffered a heart attack while they were working through their third gram of pebbles, but Christopher didn’t want to interrupt his “partying”, so he put off calling the police. By the time the cleaning lady found them the next morning, Christopher was asleep on a Barcalounger and the second AD was cold as a trout.
Christopher is also known for his disregard for the printed page, i.e. script. He doesn’t like screenwriters, thinks they are all idiots and feels it is incumbent upon himself to rewrite the pages as he performs them. This became very clear when, after a few minutes of a cryptic conversation between the Monster and Christopher (who was there to meet me, but pretty much ignored me all afternoon), they heatedly discussed the merits of “salamanders” versus “gazelles” and which were more interesting to fuck. Then Christopher insisted the he read some pages out loud.
This is my sentence, as written, Scene 7: “I saw things over there. All kinds of things. Sure. I don’t want to talk about it.” Christopher’s version: “Fuck, there was shit, yeah. You know it. Blah-blah-blah.” The enthusiasm with which the Monster greeted this disfigurement of my phrasing gave me pause. Was this really better? Now it was my turn to gaze at the Monster. He appeared to be very serious. He returned my stare and, as if answering my unspoken question, simply said: “We have a lot of work to do. A lot of work.”
Who was I to question his wisdom? The Monster had been around the block many more times than I had. He had starred in twenty movies, and half-a-dozen had made real money. The two films he had directed received very respectful reviews and even garnered a special award at Sundance. I was willing to work with him. Did I have a choice?
And so, for the next three weeks, I rewrote my script, emailing pages to both the Monster and Christopher as fast as I could write them. Notes flew back and forth and then days would pass… and nothing. Where did he go? I was not privy to this information. Then just as all hope was lost of ever hearing from him again, I would get up in the middle of the night to pee, tap my phone and an incriminating text would accost me: “Dude! Where are you? I sent you my notes three hours ago!!!! You want to do this or what???”
And meetings were never simple. In order for us to find a time and place, a complex process involving the Monster’s President of Production, Myra, (because he had his own production company) and his Agent and his Manager had to be sorted out before we could pow-wow. Everyone had to be informed of any meetings we had but couldn’t actually set up the meetings. That was the job of Myra’s assistant, who would waste three or so emails getting in touch with my agent, who would then defer to his assistant, who would then get in touch with me, and then I would have to get back in touch with Myra’s assistant, who in turn would fob the whole thing off on his intern. It would take at least twenty-four hours to set up a meeting between the Monster and myself. Which would usually be postponed by the Monster, again through Myra, her assistant, the assistant’s intern, etc. etc. etc.
The meetings were always interrupted by dozens of phone calls and text messages, often with the Monster abruptly leaving the room and sometimes disappearing altogether. In the realm in which we existed, almost any person with a connection to the Monster was higher up the pecking order than myself. Studio heads, agents, ex-wives, of course. But also trainers, housekeepers, gardeners, car detailers and dog walkers.
And on the rare occasion when we were not interrupted, he either had some kind of cold or flu or back spasm. And in the even rarer occasion when we were neither interrupted and he was in perfect health, we had to drink whiskey. No drugs. Just hard booze. Hard hard booze. I would drink as slowly as possible, or not at all, but he always noticed.
Drinking with the Monster was like drinking with Oz. He knew everything.
One day I woke to find the Monster’s Ferrari 599 parked out in front of my place on North Orange Grove Ave. I could discern two figures sitting within. I wasn’t sure if I should go out to them. I texted the Monster, but no response. Finally, Sandy demanded I go out and see what’s what. The Monster and Christopher were asleep in their respective bucket seats. I tapped on the window and they roused themselves, seemingly disoriented. I invited them in (as embarrassing as that was to do at nine in the morning).
Did I have a choice?
Did I ever have a choice? Does anyone?
While Sandy brewed coffee, the Monster and Christopher came to life. We discussed, of all things, recyclable grocery bags. Each man took a turn going to the bathroom. Soon both of them became very agitated and vociferous. And then, with no introduction whatsoever, the Monster began to rave about my screenplay. How the two had been out all night with the distributors. The Monster didn’t want to get me too excited, but the overall sense was that this film was going to be a hit and everyone was going to be very happy.
And rich. That’s why they had come by! To share the good news!
This was a month ago. We had only just hired a line producer to break out a budget. We had no sense of what it would cost to shoot it or where we would shoot it or anything. No DP yet. Given those circumstances, what the Monster was saying sounded almost delusional. But how could I argue with him? Was I going to say, “No, it’s not going to be a hit!”? That would have been crazy. Dammit, I’m only human!
Suddenly, after two sips of coffee, the Monster stood and announced that he and Christopher were driving out to Venice Beach but that we should all meet up later at Bouchon in Beverly Hills to celebrate the success of the film.
Despite everything that had come before, this was the first time I felt that I was edging out further and further on a very sheer paper-thin sheet of ice. Beneath me icy cold water flowed deep and dark. In the murky shadows, I could just make out the outlines of dangerous carnivorous fish.
And then… just as the Monster was heading out my front door, he turned to Sandy and stated: “You’re coming too, right? Everyone has to be there!”
OK, OK, I know you’re ahead of me on this one. But c’mon, put yourself in my shoes. This guy can be with any woman he wants in North America and Europe, maybe Russia. What does he care about my little Sandy? He was just being considerate, right?
So, as I’m sure you surmised, Sandy wouldn’t miss dinner with the Monster for the world and so she and I arrived at Bouchon at the appointed hour. We were shown a table in the corner, where we sat alone for forty-five minutes. I muttered, “Maybe we should leave.” But Sandy replied with her usual wisdom, “Be patient.”
The Monster arrived exactly fifty minutes late with a German guy in tow. I can’t even remember his name. Wolf? Adolph? No sign of Christopher. Of course I was happy that the star of my movie (who at this point, I saw as my enemy) was absent. Maybe he had reached his limit and was now encased in an iron lung at Cedars? I could only hope.
After ordering five bottles of champagne, the Monster and the German guy got into a heated huddle about territorial sales of my movie in Europe. I overheard the Monster mention something about a numbered account in Switzerland and then, as if he’d forgotten his cell phone in his car, he leapt up from his seat, stared directly into Sandy’s eyes and commanded: “Come here, I want to show you something!”
He grabbed my girlfriend’s hand and tugged her into the narrow hallway at the rear of the restaurant.
I was left alone with Wolf or Adolph or whatever his name was who didn’t seem the least bit interested in talking to me or even looking at me. Who was I? Nothing more than the screenwriter. The author. I grew more and more agitated when the Monster and Sandy did not return. Eventually, I received a text from Sandy saying “Don’t worry about me. I will see you at home. All very innocent. Funny. LOL.”
So I drove home to an empty apartment. No Sandy. The next morning, no Sandy, no text, no nothing. Sandy didn’t show up again until four days later. Turns out the Monster did have something he wanted Sandy to see. And he showed it to her in Puerto Vallarta.
I had a long talk with myself and decided that I did want this movie and I did want the Monster to direct but that I had to write the film I had to write. Only by sticking to my guns script-wise could I look at myself in the mirror.
Sandy reappeared and showered and changed her clothes and, without saying a word to me, flew out to her boutique job. I swallowed two Adderall and, with an intensity I have never known, rewrote the whole damn script.
Six days after our “dinner,” I emailed the script to the Monster. No reply for twelve hours.
Then, I got a terse text. “Meet me at my bungalow.”
I was ready for the confrontation. He wanted to have his improvising wingman in my picture? He wanted me to take drugs with him in the desert? He wanted to fuck my girlfriend? Fine. But if that screenplay was going to have my name on it, it would be my screenplay. A person has to make a stand somewhere.
After wrangling with guards about whether or not I actually had a drive-on, I found the Monster alone in his suite. He just stared at me when I entered. He said simply, “I read it.”
I replied, “And?”
He said “Let’s go for a drive.”
For some reason I had the impression that we were heading out to the beach. But when he jumped onto the 10, he aimed east. I decided then and there that I was not going to give him the satisfaction of asking where we were going. He in turn treated me to a facet of his personality I had not yet encountered. His capacity to remain as silent as a stone.
We simply drove. Maybe he was on opioids or something. I have no idea.
A little over two hours later, we were once again at the gates of Joshua Tree National Park.
And that’s how I ended up in the situation I am in now. Making this recording. On my phone. I just recharged it last night, so I think it will make it all the way to the end of this statement.
Passing the gate, we wound along the park’s drive, past the Joshua Trees which looked like they were laughing at me.
Once again we ended up at the Skull Rock lot. After parking, the Monster simply left the car and began to walk and I followed him, just as we had done a couple of months before. What choice did I have? I made a mental note not to drink any water he handed me.
Once again, we hiked over the ridge. After about forty five minutes of trekking, he said, “Let me show you something.”
We squeezed through a crevice in the rock face and found ourselves in a mini-ravine. In another era, when this part of the world was the Wild West, a prospector had mined for silver here. A hole about three feet high had been carved into the side of the hill. A spray of gravel flared out from around the opening as if cast by a giant rabbit.
The Monster pointed into the opening. “Take a look!”
The sun shone so bright outside, my eyes could not adjust. All I could see within was a deep blackness. What was in there? A body? My girlfriend? No way Sandy could be in there!
As I was musing over this last thought, I leaned forward trying to peer into the gloom.
And that’s when I felt a sharp shove from behind. I stumbled as I tried to regain my balance by stepping forward, but my foot found nothing but air. I was lurching into space.
I fell a few feet, but I didn’t land in dirt. I landed on… wood. And then, before I could pull myself up onto my knees, I felt another shove, but from something much heavier.
It was a massive plank. Or planks. I would soon learn it was the lid of the coffin-like box I had dropped into. I found myself on my hands and knees as the heavy lid pushed me forward again, flat on my face. I heard a thump. It must have been the Monster jumping down onto top of the lid. I could not move.
That’s when I heard the dirt being scooped down on top of the lid. Yes. I was “Vanishing” just like the others before me, those in the 1988 original and the sequel. Just like Uma in Kill Bill. All of us. And I didn’t even have a flashlight to stick in my mouth.
That’s how I find myself where I am right now as I make this tape. Except this isn’t a movie. And there is no way I will be able to get out of this one. So, unless something miraculous happens, you have just found this old phone clutched in a skeletal hand.
I’m past panic. All of this was inevitable. I see that now.
I can rest. I can let go.
Because… because… in the end, I’m going to get a film made.
Photo Credit: MONIQUE CARBONI