It’s his first Hollywood job. So his film producer boss changes his life – but not for good. Part One. 3,498 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“This is Cara in Arielle Castle’s office. Is this Scott?”
“So you’re looking for a job?”
I jumped out of my seat, suddenly extremely conscious of the fact that I was wearing nothing but boxer shorts. It was 104 degrees in Burbank and, despite what the advertising tells you, they don’t have air-conditioning in every unit at the Oakwood Apartments. I wanted to be in “the business” more than anything. When people told me it was a brutal industry and that I should try something else, it just made me want it more. My parents had told me in no uncertain terms that I had better get a job, and soon. "Because," my mom had said, ‘your father and I are only paying that exorbitant $1,050 for a studio apartment for one more month." I wondered if Arielle Castle had air conditioning in her office.
“Yes. Absolutely,” I answered, quickly navigating my laptop to IMDb.com. I typed in “Arielle Castle.” I had applied for hundreds of jobs online: the UTA job list, EntertainmentCareers.net, studio job portals – you name it. This was the first time anyone had called back.
“Can you come in for an interview tomorrow at 11 a.m.?”
“Yes. I would love — That would be great. Yes. Thank you,” I sputtered, scanning Arielle Castle’s list of credits. There were 29 of them – nearly one movie a year for the past three decades, including some major franchises and Oscar winners. She was always credited as “Associate Producer”.
“Okay. Arielle will meet you at her house. It’s 974 Knob Tree Avenue, Sherman Oaks.”
I wrote that down on the back of a receipt from CVS. “Thank you, Cara.” I hung up the phone, smiled, and let out a deep breath, like I’d been holding it in since I got here. I drove out the week after I graduated from Haverford. I thought I would be a producer, maybe a manager – though at that time I wasn’t quite sure what that meant other than that it was what E did on Entourage. I read Play It As It Lays and What Makes Sammy Run in college, and I thought Hollywood was transporting. No, I didn’t want to be Sammy, but hell – Al Manheim didn’t have it that bad. He did all right. I would have taken his career.
The next day, I gave myself an hour to get from Burbank to Sherman Oaks. It took 20 minutes. I had heard horror stories about LA traffic, but so far had seemed to arrive everywhere 40 minutes too early. Then I waited in my car for another 20 minutes before knocking on Arielle Castle’s door at 10:55. The woman who answered the door was in her fifties, wearing form-fitting Seven For All Mankind jeans and a sweater that couldn’t have cost less than $200, which was obvious despite the fact that it was covered in cat hair.
“I’m Arielle. Come on in.”
I recognized her voice. She had introduced herself as Cara on the phone.
I love that moment. The first time they come to the door, hungry.
“I’m Arielle. Come on in.” I saw his eyes scan me. He noticed Jackson, my tabby cat. Then Washington, my great dane. John Adams & John Quincy Adams, my Siamese twins, were probably sleeping under the bed. And Van Buren, my mutt terrier, was wagging his tail, following our new friend.
“Beautiful home.” It was astonishing how many of them said those exact words.
“Let me show you around,” I always responded. I lived in a ranch-style house with two bedrooms, a kitchen, and an office. It was roomy, and I owned it outright – a ‘thank you’ gift from Bob Wagner. Hollywood was different then though. Times are tighter now.
After he had seen the whole house except my bedroom, I sat him down at the kitchen table. Washington growled, then let out a single deep-throated bark. The kid jumped. His knee hit the table, jingling everything. I held in my laughter and pulled Washington toward me and reassured him that Scott was our new friend. I could tell the kid was scared of him. Or me. Or both. “Do you have a problem working in my home with pets?”
“Not at all. I love cats,” he glanced at Washington, “And dogs.” He reached down and started petting Van Buren, demonstrating his love of dogs.
“Good. And when’s your birthday?”
He hesitated. I could tell he wanted to ask me why I wanted to know his birthday, but he didn’t. He was so new. “February 1st.” Jack of Spades. Jacks are creative, driven, intelligent… And the Jack of Spades is a one-eyed-jack, so he’s willing to bend the truth to get the job done. Success is more important to him than morality. One-eyed jacks make great assistants. Xander was a one-eyed jack. What else did I need to know?
“So you don’t have a lot of experience, why should I hire you?”
“Well, first of all, I’ll work twice as hard as anyone else,” It was not astonishing how many of them said that, and they all believed it to be true.
“Well, that’s good to hear.”
“No task is too great or too small.”
“Did they tell you to say that in college or did you read it on the Internet?” I smiled at him. He didn’t know how to answer. It was almost like a cartoon. He stammered, and said a few incomprehensible words, then… “I’m not sure where I heard the phrase first, but it’s true in my case. And I’m a huge fan of your work. The Crow was one of my favorite movies growing up.”
I smiled. “That was a fun movie to work on. Obviously, it stopped being fun at a certain point. With what happened with Brandon.” The kid just nodded, solemnly. I never met Brandon Lee.
“Do you know what an associate producer does?” I asked him.
“You put the whole movie together: find the script, match it with a director, help with casting, oversee the budget.”
“That’s what a producer does,” I explained to him. “What an associate producer does is harder to pin down.” I got a text right then from Mickey: I need your help. I texted back: Five minutes. I watched him for a minute. He maintained eye contact, tried a smile. I could tell he was too afraid to just ask me what the hell it is I do.
“Are you an actor?” I asked him.
“No… I think I want to be a producer, maybe a manager… Or both.”
“I don’t hire actors. So if you have even a fleeting interest in acting, forget it.” Then I told him the story of Shawn. “I had this kid working for me, black kid from Inglewood. His name was Shawn and I thought things were really going well for him. Then one day he calls me and asks if he can miss work because he has an audition for Blowin’ Up. Well, I guess he forgot that he had told me he wasn’t an actor, and – more importantly – that Mickey is a friend of mine.”
I liked that he knew that. It’s always good in an interview to drop just a first name and see if they can pick it up. “That’s right,” I answered, “So I called Mickey and I told him to make sure that Shawn’s name disappeared from the audition list. And when he came in the next day, there was someone else sitting at this kitchen table…” I gave that a minute to sink in. I knew he wasn’t an actor. I just thought it was fun to mess with these kids. And the only black Shawn I knew was a cat that ran away.
Arielle had two dogs, and I was convinced that she trained them to shit on the kitchen floor, right under my workspace, daily. One of them, Washington, was a Great Dane and his turds weighed more than my head. Which is to say, my primary task was cleaning up shit. And when I wasn’t cleaning up after her dogs, I spent most of my day sitting at her kitchen table with my laptop, doing “research” – searching the web and making phone calls to photographers and assistants because I was tasked with gathering intel on managers, agents, producers, studio heads, actors. They all knew that if they told me what she wanted to know, they would get a check in their mailbox for ‘Freelance Research’ – checks that, depending on how salacious the tidbit, could exceed my weekly salary. “Information is power in this town,” Arielle would say. And the information she wanted was specific.
Once she asked me to find out how much an agent paid his nanny and if she was illegal. I found out where his kids went to school and orchestrated a very minor fender-bender with the nanny a block away. When she hightailed out of there like she was in a Fast & Furious movie, I knew she was illegal. Then I analyzed the bank statements I found in the agent’s trash to discover she was being paid only six bucks an hour. I was so proud of myself. Playing detective was the fun part of the job, even if I had no idea how it was contributing to movies, or even ‘the business’. I desperately wanted her to ask me to explain the lengths I had gone to on her behalf, but instead, she said, “Washington went number two under your workspace again and John Quincy Adams threw up in the kitchen. Can you take care of that?” The slobbering dog, who growled at me every morning and intermittently throughout the day, sat at her feet, mugging me.
I fantasized about quitting every day, but she dangled incentives in front of me. She told me that her former assistant, Xander, had received an associate producer credit on a movie they had worked on together. I looked it up and it was true, right there on IMDb: ‘Alexander Thomas’ was an associate producer on First & Goal. I had never heard of it, so I watched it. It was a re-imagining of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace set in the world of college football, with the Gene character intentionally missing a block and allowing Phineas, his QB and best friend, to be hit and paralyzed from the neck down. It was emotional and intelligent, and had great scenes of football action. I completely recommitted to the job. If I could be involved with something like that, I could clean up a little bit more of her presidentially-named pets’ bodily waste. I learned on the Internet that First & Goal had struggled with ‘on-set difficulties’ and had been shelved by the studio for two years after it was completed.
What had Xander done to get his name on it? Arielle still hadn’t quite told me.. I thought I might get a better understanding of that on the day of our first meeting at Ascendancy Management. I knew it produced about half the premium cable shows I watched. Founded by ex-ICM music agent Mickey Spatino (who Arielle had mentioned during the interview) and his client MC History, a rapper, turned actor, turned TV Cop, and finally turned entertainment mogul, Ascendancy had grown from an upstart company with only one real money-making client to a powerhouse. It had all started with Blowin’ Up, a semi-autobiographical half-hour based on MC History’s rise in Atlanta of the 1990’s. I had watched every single episode. Needless to say, I was excited. This was my first real Hollywood meeting – even if I was probably just going to have to sit quietly and take notes.
We had to reschedule the meeting three times because Arielle kept all her appointments on a pocket astrology calendar that also tracked ‘moon voids’ and periods when ‘mercury was in retrograde’ – which together seemed to comprise nearly half of all the days in the year. She was really into astrology, but claimed the Zodiac was ‘total bullshit’. Her astrology corresponded, instead, to playing cards. I had to find out the birthday of everyone she met so she could find out what their card was. She told me during my first week of work that you could never trust one-eyed jacks, and that I was a one-eyed jack, “So you’re probably a sociopath. I don’t know what it is about me, but I seem to attract sociopaths… I don’t normally like to be in business with them, but they make great assistants.” I tried to tell her that I wasn’t a sociopath, but it was useless.
To prepare for the Ascendancy meeting, I learned that MC History was finishing production on Other Sidez, the sixth installment of The Other Side of The Law franchise. The first had started out as a spec script by a baby writer who Mickey had discovered, “Or so he’ll tell you,” Arielle had explained to me. “The truth is, he poached him from a no-name manager who had sent him the script as a sample, hoping Mickey would produce. But managers aren’t supposed to poach so don’t forget about the six NDAs you signed.” Arielle always liked to remind me of NDAs I had signed, as if the size and shape of her dogs’ dingleberries were a closely-guarded Hollywood trade secret.
MC History starred alongside Paul Samuels, a pasty heartthrob. History was the cop who played by his own rules, Samuels was the roguish ex-criminal brought on board to help bring down his former associates. It ended with a great Usual Suspects-esque twist. In the sequels, the budgets ballooned, along with the absurdity of the plots, and the box office gross. Now Arielle Castle would be another in the ever-growing list of producers. As always, she would be credited as “Associate Producer”. Despite my growing hatred toward my employer, I could barely contain my excitement to finally be doing something related to a movie. I still hadn’t been on a set… And I still didn’t really understand what an “Associate Producer” did. But Mickey Spatino was a legend. He was the guy I wanted to be.
Arielle had tasked me to find out what kind of car Paul Samuels drove. He had famously been one of the first to buy a Ferrari LaFerrari which cost a million and a half dollars, and for some reason Arielle wanted to know – fuel efficiency (12 city, 16 highway advertised), transmission (7-spped dual-clutch automatic with manual shifting mode), location of manufacture (originally Italy, but heavily modified in LA), license plate number (2TYU937 – I was surprised he didn’t have vanity plates until I found out how many speeding tickets he had).
For the correspondences that yielded this information, I utilized myriad phony email addresses Arielle had set up. I became a slew of female staff members — Tiffany, Cara (who I had met on the phone), Kimberly, Ashley, Heather, and Jacqueline. None of these women existed in reality. I was Arielle’s only employee. However, in the world of the Internet, her office was buzzing with the frenzied activity of feminine underlings.
Ascendancy’s office was located in a nondescript office building on Lankershim. We drove there in Arielle’s Prius. I rode in the front, with Van Buren on my lap, hanging his head out the window. Even though he was a pain in the ass, I was growing to love that damn dog. Washington, her fucking Great Dane, on the other hand, was the bane of my existence. He sat in the back seat, slobbering. I wondered how Mickey Spatino felt about having two dogs in his meeting.
When we walked in, it was nothing like I had pictured. It was a drab interior with cracked concrete floors, a few one-sheeters for Blowin’ Up and Other Side of the Game on stained off-white walls, an empty reception desk, and three assistants in cubicles looking bored and staring at their computer screens, their bosses’ doors closed behind them. It smelled of pot and stale coffee. Arielle handed me Washington and Van Buren’s leashes and walked straight toward one of the closed doors. I followed, but she pointed me toward an empty office.
“Take Washington and Van Buren in there, they keep food and water and dog toys. You have to keep this door closed," she instructed. "I don’t want Washington or Van Buren running out. If you open this door, you’re fired.”
I walked in seething with resentment. She had spent all week talking about “when we meet with Mickey,” and now I was being forced to dog sit.
I never found out why she needed all that information about Paul Samuels’s car. Instead, I sat in the room trying to stop Washington from making too much noise. He sat by the door, sniffing under it for Arielle, then growling, then howling, then barking. When he wouldn’t stop whining, I grabbed his collar and jerked it. Washington snapped at me, chomping down on my hand, hard. I jumped back. It hurt like hell and I was bleeding a lot. Then Van Buren started barking at Washington and Washington barked back, louder.
Suddenly Mickey Spatino burst into the room. He was short, balding, barrel-chested, and had huge ears, “Can you please shut those fucking dogs up!?” he screamed at me. “We’re trying to have a meeting in here.”
Arielle was right behind him. “Jesus, Scott! Are you bleeding all over their fucking floor!? What the hell did you do to Washington?” She ran to the dog and started petting him. I could see my own flesh dangling from Washington’s teeth, which he bared at me over Arielle’s shoulder as she hugged and stroked him.
I was bleeding more and more. "Can somebody get a fucking towel over here?” Mickey screamed. Suddenly, all the assistants jumped out of their seats and someone finally gave me a rag to put pressure on my wound. No one spoke to me. No one looked me in the eye. No one asked if I was okay. Once he’d calmed down, Mickey opened a filing cabinet and took out a green rubber bone, which he threw to Washington. Mickey and Arielle left without saying another word to me.
After that, Washington chewed the bone contentedly, with only the occasional whine or bark, while Van Buren sat in my lap, occasionally licking up the blood that trickled down my arm from under the towel. I sobbed into his fur.
My first real Hollywood meeting.
No matter how many times we had these meetings, Mickey always wanted to justify himself. Most of them treated it like the only thing it could be: a business transaction. But Mickey had a big mouth. He thought he was a gangster. And he wanted to be in on the action.
“This fucking guy. First he wants twenty million a movie. Then he wants a producer credit. Then he wants equity. All of it, he gets. And then, he walks off set. I mean, really? What’s the point? And don’t forget we both know what it will do to opening weekend gross… It’s Cam’s franchise anyway, he’s a real producer, since day one.” Cam was what anyone who knew him called MC History. “I spoke to Gary today and he said he got everything except his stunt work, so it’s not going to look like Game of Death… When’s it going to happen?”
“Can you get him to a meeting at the studio next week?," I replied. "Offer him a car wash. I’ll take it from there.”
Mickey got up and started pacing behind his desk. “I’ll try.”
“Wait,” I realized… “It has to be before Wednesday. The rest of the week is a moon void.”
Mickey sneered. “You sure you want to use the car? It seems… loud. On the nose, even. Why not a good old overdose?”
“You do your job. I’ll do mine,” I told him. He had sweat through his shirt and couldn’t seem to stand or sit still. So I asked, “Are you sure you want to go through with this one?”
He stopped pacing, and looked at me, grinning. “Am I sure? I’m already thinking about who’s going to collaborate on the sentimental pop tribute in memory of Paul Samuels that will play over the credits on Other Sidez. I’m thinking J. Cole and Adele.” So that settled it. Then we heard the dogs barking.
“New assistant?” Mickey asked me. “You use the ‘we’ trick?”
“I invented the ‘we’ trick,” I laughed. The ‘we’ trick is when you say “We have a meeting…”, then leave the assistant out of the meeting, preferably with an impossible task. So I left him with Washington. I liked Scott, but I didn’t think he could be the next Xander — my favorite Jack of Hearts. May he rest in peace.
This short story first posted here on September 29, 2015.