An assistant takes friendly advice on how to deal with a monstrous film boss in this book excerpt. 1,706 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
With a personality as unruly as his person, Carson Thorne’s boss, Zach Corrigan (aka “the beast”), was a large rumpled man who some speculated might be suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Carson had a better answer: “Zach is a performance artist specializing in mood swings.”
Zach admitted to thirty-eight. He was actually forty-six. Carson knew this because, as his first assistant, he’d helped Zach renew his passport and driver’s license. Zach’s self-image was that of a rakish hipster, dashing and edgy. Everyone else viewed him as a borderline slob. Zach had a heavy beard but shaved only twice a week, probably on the same days he bathed, and with all his accumulated wealth, he had yet to invest in a comb or a steam iron. His Saville Row custom-tailored suits were perpetually rumpled, his club tie always cocked to one side, his shirt tucked half-in/half-out. All his socks had holes in the big toe and the last time his shoes had been shined was by the manufacturer. His attentive patient wife, Mila, had long ago given up on trying to bring order to his sartorial chaos. She chose to pick her battles and fight only those she had a chance of winning.
Though rabidly driven and tireless, Zach was also a devoted family man. Unlike most Hollywood producers, he wouldn’t even think of cheating on his wife despite the constant stream of come-ons from sacrificial lamb ingénues. Moreover, he never missed one of his children’s soccer matches, graduations or dance recitals even if it meant being late to a business meeting or an important political fundraiser he was chairing.
Zach’s preferred means of communication consisted of an infinite variety of snorts and harrumphs, and he freely emitted unsightly noises from all his bodily orifices. He didn’t seem to care if other people were present, even celebrities, most of whom claimed they found the impromptu explosions charming. That’s how badly they wanted to be in business with Zach Corrigan, whose films had won seventeen Oscars to date and been nominated for forty-two.
Zach was as intuitive as he was stubborn and as kind as he was unforgiving. At times, he could be charming and riotously funny; and during those interludes, he would have the entire conference room rolling on the floor. At most other meetings, however, his loyal subjects sat in quiet terror, expecting Zach to pull the pin from a grenade at any moment and lob it directly at them. They had long ago given up trying to predict when and if he would detonate, and he seemed to relish keeping them off balance.
Carson idolized and feared Zach. Every day, he learned something new from the boss about the movie business. His employer was dedicated and knowledgeable about his profession and up on every aspect of its inner-workings. And like most obsessive individuals, he was mercurial. Carson could never be quite certain which Zach would bolt through the door each morning, swinging his scuffed-up Hermes leather satchel like he was about to pitch it out the window. He might just as easily appear with his arms full of coffee containers and pastries for the entire office, or walk up to an employee’s desk and stand perfectly still – a signal that the subordinate had five minutes to clear out. And by five minutes, he meant three hundred seconds, not three hundred and one.
The dismissed workers, who were usually guilty of some infraction, rarely sued for wrongful termination since, if they hoped to work in the industry, they would inevitably cross paths with Zach again. If they went quietly, he eventually forgave; if they cost him litigation or buy-out costs, he never forgot.
Each morning, no later than seven a.m. as Carson slid behind the wheel of his VW bug and drove to work, he prayed that he would still be employed by the end of another twelve hour-plus day. Currently in his second year as Zach’s first assistant, he was flirting with the record held by Peter Farley who, after being hired away by another production company, had gone on to produce a major superhero franchise and recently purchased his own island in the South Pacific.
The day Peter quit, Zach disowned him but later reconsidered when his former assistant offered to help fund one of Timbuktu’s shakier projects. It was the least Farley could do. Absent the opportunity to be overworked and humbled by Zach – and absorb a great deal of insider information and amass a sterling digital Rolodex – he might be selling used cars in the South Bay.
Hot and cold. Freezing and boiling. That was Zach; though so far, he seemed only lukewarm about Carson, who had attempted everything in his considerable arsenal to cajole and impress his boss. By a stroke of good luck, Carson had been promoted from second to first assistant after only a few months on the job. Most seconds had to put in at least two years before they got a chance to move up to the front desk, and then only because their predecessor had advanced or departed for a better position at another company. That is, if they lasted two years. At Timbuktu, heads rolled with regularity not because Zach was ruthless, but because he recognized that the pool of available talent in Hollywood at any given moment was enormous. Why settle for anyone subpar when, through the process of regular purging, he could assemble a first-rate team?
Evan Burum, Zach’s first assistant when Carson was hired, had made a classic mistake. When Zach left town to visit the production site on one of his films, he graciously passed on his tickets to a charity premiere. At the door, Evan and his date were informed that the tickets were non-transferrable (“and you are clearly not Zach Corrigan,” the greeter said). Instead of leaving quietly, he put up a fuss, going so far as to use the deadly phrase, “Do you know who I am?” To which the greeter replied, “You’re probably an executive assistant because, if you really were someone, I’d recognize you.”
Evan’s biggest miscalculation was assuming that his little tantrum would not get back to Zach (aka “the beast with a thousand eyes”). The following morning, Evan traipsed into the office and found his belongings at the front desk along with a check for accrued vacation time. Zach didn’t even bother to fire him in person.
Earlier, Zach had phoned Carson and asked him to assume Evan’s duties pro tem. Carson agreed, having already learned to “just do it and don’t ask questions.” After a few weeks sitting at Evan’s former desk, Carson took the initiative of compiling a list of candidates for the top assistant’s position and presented it to Zach. Without looking up Zach said, “Why, don’t you like sitting in that chair?”
“Well, yeah, of course I do,” Carson replied. Indeed, he was enjoying the enhanced responsibilities and greater access that came with the position. But only an idiot would settle in without Zach’s expressed approval.
“Then leave me alone and go back to work,” Zach said. But as he was about to depart, he added, “You might want to start putting together some names for a new second, though.”
“Does that mean I’m your permanent first assistant?” Carson asked, seeking clarification and, at the same time, terrified of the answer.
“Nothing is permanent,” Zach reminded him. “Now bring me a cappuccino and go light on the cinnamon.” Zach drank five to ten cappuccinos a day from his personal top-of-the-line espresso machine, and was very particular about the proper ratio of steamed milk to espresso, and what differentiated a dusting of cinnamon from an overdose.
“Sometimes I feel like he promoted me to first assistant for my coffee-making skills,” Carson moaned.
“Yours not to reason why. Yours but to do or die,” his best friend and roommate, Jamie, a fledgling editor, reminded him.
“Oh yeah?” Carson countered. “Well, how about when you come home tonight, you bite me?”
After settling into his enhanced role, however, Carson almost immediately began to itch for further advancement. Every time he bemoaned his lack of progress, Jamie’s response was the same. “Zach has hung onto you for a year and half already, which in his universe makes you practically family. Just keep your head down and do your job. It’ll happen.”
Patience, however, had never been one of Carson’s virtues. Like most ambitious young men, he wanted what he wanted and he wanted it immediately. To quote Carrie Fisher, “Instant gratification takes too long.”
While his armor-plated skeleton enabled him to withstand his employer’s erratic behavior, he was not content with the meager bones Zach sometimes threw his way. On occasion, his boss would ask for Carson’s detailed opinion on a script which he had to read and write about on his own time. (Jamie proofread and corrected any awkward language). Zach never commented on Carson’s coverage, though during one meeting Zach regurgitated a couple of the first assistant’s observations almost verbatim. Even though he didn’t receive credit, Carson was gratified that Zach thought enough of what was written to appropriate it.
Another proving ground was Carson’s ability to cull replacements for the second assistant position; they were dismissed on a regular basis for a host of reasons. One young man was let go for having too much hair. (Zach’s was thinning rapidly). Another was accused of giving Zach (and subsequently his children) the flu. “Could you make sure the next person has had all his shots?”
“I don’t think it’s legal to check people’s health records,” Carson commented.
Zach simply groaned and shooed him away, mumbling something derogatory under his breath.
Hiring a second was a careful balancing act. Carson wanted to offer Zach strong candidates, but at the same time, he feared bringing an Eve Harrington on board. When in doubt, he remembered Jamie’s sage advice: “From what you’ve told me, Zach can smell weakness from a mile away. I would go with the best people you can find. I’m not worried. You’ve always been good at sniffing out rattlesnakes and chopping off their heads.”
“It’s not the snakes I worry about. It’s the worms. They can regenerate.”
An excerpt from Richard Natale’s novel The Rushes published May 21, 2018, by Avid Publishing LLC.