Whenever the struggling actor was in a quandary, he asked himself this question. The answer came quickly. 2,614 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“I’m going to kill you. Gonna watch you die and enjoy it. When you leaked that evidence about me, you made a big mistake. And now you’re gonna pay.” Jonathon Levy moved the gun closer to the bald man.
The bald man’s face remained blank. “Thanks. You can go now.”
“But I got more lines.”
“I’ve heard enough.” The bald man, whose name was William Henry, wrote something down on a pad then pushed his chair toward the desk.
Levy didn’t move.
“Sir, I have other people to see.”
Levy looked around the large empty audition hall, then leaned toward Henry, his small frame tiny next to the other man’s meatier physique. “What did you think?”
“I can do it another way if you like. More innocence, add in some humor, tougher. Any way you want.”
Henry blew out air. “You should go home, wait for your agent’s call.”
Levy nodded, sure the casting director gave him a signal — a signal that meant he got the part. That was good news, as he needed the money. Levy had been working in “the biz,” as he called it, for several years. He got the odd role, but not enough to keep him from being a waiter in a family restaurant. He hated the rude customers and screaming kids who often spilled ketchup and other crap on his white uniform. He hoped this would be the part that would take him to the top — perhaps getting him work with Pacino, his idol. He grinned at Henry and left.
A young inexperienced security guard becomes an astute observer of how Hollywood really works. 2,547 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Dan looked left and then right. The only one of these two that might make any sense was busy hopping on one foot as he pissed against a wall. No way was it the other guy. The other guy had no pants and was dragging a shopping cart without wheels. It couldn’t be him. Finally he finished. Dan called out. “Are you Vance?”
The guy who turned wasn’t tall but still somehow seemed it, at least until you got close. Thin, with stick legs, a huge head, rocker hair and a well-worn Judas Priest shirt. Dressed all in black, he looked more like a roadie than a professional security guard. Maybe 50/50?
“Yaa… whatta you want?”
“They… uh, I mean Wilf, told me to report here. I’m Dan… for security…”
“Well, welcome to Hollywood, buddy, or at least my shitty corner of it.”
Vance’s “corner” was actually on the lower East side of Vancouver. It consisted almost entirely of aging trucks, trailers and rental vans parked along a side street. Vance began to swing his arms and point.
“The whole circus is strung out along the block here – plus we got the small parking lot there and then another few trucks around that corner. It’s kind of a fuckin’ pain with the corner ‘cause it makes me have to get out and move around every hour or so. Glad you’re here.”
Dan nodded his head like he understood what was going on – even though he didn’t.
The special effects wiz was so sure he would land the Disney contract. How will failure impact his family? 3,331 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jerry glances at the clock: ten a.m. He rolls back to his workstation, where the screensaver catches his attention. It’s the logo of his company, an abstract depiction of a fishing boat about to be engulfed by a monstrous wave – the scene from the movie that made his special effects company’s reputation. Just looking at it now depresses him. The artwork for the logo, even using the still frame from the film, cost twenty-five grand, reminding him of that era of seeming limitless resources. Jerry hits the space bar on the keyboard just to get rid of the damn logo.
A buzzing at the office door jolts Jerry out of his reverie. He finds a cheerful woman with a latte and cinnamon roll, his usual order from the corner kiosk. He pays her and settles back in his work chair. The cinnamon roll in his stomach congeals into a rock. Without looking Jerry reaches into the drawer beneath the desk, pulls out a bottle of Tums, and pops a few. Is it too early to call Hal Rosen, the studio exec, and check up on the Disney deal? Jerry reaches for the phone but realizes that calling would be a faux pas. In New York, a call like that would mean you really wanted the job and you’d work extra hard if you got it. In L.A. it was a sign of weakness, of desperation.
Jerry asks Emily to invite Hal and his wife Lisa over for dinner – and for Emily to make her killer bouillabaisse. Emily and Lisa know each other not only from college but from their charity work for the Dream Center, and their daughters sometimes go horseback riding together. The evening is pleasant; business is never discussed. Upstairs their girls watch an old video and giggle a lot.
Late that night, after the guests have gone, Emily vomits up the fish stew. Then it’s Jerry’s turn. This goes on until three in the morning when it strikes Jerry that Hal and Lisa might be having the same reaction. First Jerry checks on their own daughter, who feels fine except for her resentment at being awoken in the middle of the night. Then Jerry calls Hal’s home number. No answer. He tries Hal’s cell and, to his surprise, Hal’s daughter answers. She’s with her parents at the emergency room at the City of Hope, just checking them in.
Oh, shit, Jerry thinks. “What’s happening?” he asks.
A special effects wizard on the way to the top of his profession suddenly tumbles. 3,614 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
If you’re looking for warm and fuzzy, look elsewhere. The Hollywood tabloids and online rumormongers only let the matter pass because, at first, Jerry Switzer didn’t merit their attention and, by the time the full bloom of his foulness became known, the subject was old news. But for those of us in the entertainment industry, Jerry’s downfall wasn’t schadenfreude as much as there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.
Jerry worked as a highly paid specialist in Hollywood’s visual effects industry, conjuring his wizardry of transforming or heightening reality not on the chaos of the set but later, at the quiet of a humming computer workstation. From about nine in the morning until long after dark, he toned up the visuals of countless film and commercial images for FloMotion, a company which made its reputation years earlier depicting ocean waves on the big screen with such detailed realism that you would never believe they were filmed in what amounted to an oversized bathtub.
Louise and I both had known Jerry and his lovely wife Emily since college at Cal Arts. Back then Jerry was a regular guy, a bit of a social slouch, but he laughed at our jokes and occasionally came up with one of his own. If we laughed, he glowed as if finally being accepted by our group. Which we considered him to be: he was one of us.
I don’t pretend to know the whole account; I can only try to piece it together after the fact. Jerry was my friend; that is to say that I knew him over a period of years and we and our wives and families went to the beach, had cookouts together, those sorts of things. One pristine spring day, before any of us had kids, we even hiked the length of Malibu Canyon – a sobering thought looking back now.
Jerry and I also knew each other professionally, so I have a minor role to play in this saga. I have this to say: the Jerry I knew was a good man, devoted to his wife and daughter, considerate of his employees, an all-around true-blue-swell guy.
A TV comedy writer/producer on the skids grapples with a crazy partner and family of five while knowing desperation is contagious. 5,213 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing. A second excerpt from the newly published funny and subversive novel Formerly Cool.
Warren Brace understood why he was so upset about the abortive pitch, and it wasn’t because a truckload of hundred-dollar bills with his name on them had disappeared into a sinkhole. Most of the sitcoms he’d worked on, and all of those he and Mitch had created, had at best been well-crafted diversions — intended to entertain, to distract, maybe to teach obvious lessons to children. They calmed and confirmed the status quo. But he knew sitcoms were capable of zeroing in not on what America thought it was, or pretended it was, but on what it was. Father Knows Best had the perfect dad guiding the perfect family in the perfect home in the perfect country, but The Honeymooners had a loud fat loser in a dingy apartment railing against his wife and the booming nation that had left him behind – and it was funny.
Warren wanted to make people laugh like his heroes had, like Lenny Bruce, like Mad Magazine at its best, like Richard Pryor. He wanted to offer viewers not pacifiers but funhouse mirrors. And thereby to steer the national conversation like his old pal Norman Lear. The dilution of the television audience since All In The Family by hundreds of cable channels, video streaming and all the rest had made it much harder to create a series that tens of millions would watch, much less remember and talk about, feel about.
Warren hadn’t shared all his hopes for the dinosaur show with anyone, not even Mitch; they sounded ridiculous and pretentious even when he thought them to himself. But he believed that, beneath the raucous nonsensical veneer of that series was a foundation that could support a deep, wide, hilarious rendering of America as he saw it and spark proverbial watercooler conversations across the country.
Within the hour, Mitch was dashing from Warren’s rundown BMW toward Warren’s rundown home, leaving his partner to hobble around his vehicle to shut the passenger door. Which required an extra shove from his right haunch that generated, in addition to a fresh jolt of back pain, a dull ache in his abdomen where Warren had punched him in the TV network’s elevator.
A TV executive hears a comedy pitch from a desperate team of over-50 showrunners she’s never met and may never again. 5,110 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing. The first excerpt from a newly published funny and subversive novel Formerly Cool.
Calling in his last ancient chit, Warren Brace had talked a former junior colleague into issuing a drive-on to get them through the front gate. The rest would be up to him.
He piloted his old BMW convertible, its torn roof folded down out of view so as not to humiliate its occupants, toward the visitors’ lot. Fifty-eight and no longer an athlete –- he was even done with pick-up basketball, the risk of injury now far outweighing the pleasure he got from playing — Warren wore a sports jacket, faded jeans, and a bright new T-shirt with a hip (his son Clay had assured him) image of an audio cassette above the slight paunch that poked over the top of his seat belt. After extensive experimentation with hair coloring he’d left the gray specks in his beard, which he’d carefully trimmed to look untrimmed. Just this morning he’d noticed the beginnings of what he’d assumed were facial warts. Warren, once a Golden Boy, had begun to believe he’d be an odd-looking old man.
Mitch Flomenhoft, four years younger, nearly a foot shorter and more informally unshaven, with hair another former colleague had described as “bozine” after her favorite frizzy-haired TV clown, wore red Converse sneakers and a flowery Hawaiian shirt that most people who’d never known a joke writer would consider antithetical to his dignity. Under the shirt, on his left shoulder, the Charlie Chaplin tattoo he’d treated himself to upon moving to Hollywood decades earlier had aged to look less like Chaplin and more like Hitler.
Mitch glowered at the dashboard clock. “We’re over an hour early,” Mitch said. “I told you there’d be no traffic.”
If Warren had told his partner the real reason he’d picked him up at 9 AM for an 11 AM meeting less than half an hour away -– that there was no 11 AM meeting and they were in the midst of a con job that Warren had been meticulously planning for months in an effort to resuscitate their drowned careers -– Mitch’s pride and rage would never have permitted him to get into the car. “I knew they’d make us park out where the slaves are picking cotton,” said Warren as he drove them farther and farther from their destination on the lot. “And you have to get into costume.”
It’s the most cliched phrase in filmmaking: “I want to direct.” This screenwriter said it and had nothing to lose. 2,791 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
"Hit you for a favor?" Gregorian asked as he and Salter strolled toward their cars after an hour of pickup basketball at a park in Santa Monica.
"A partner and I have a psychological thriller we’re getting ready to shoot –"
"Mind taking a look at the script?"
As though monitored by some advanced form of Google Earth, Salter’s phone rang the very instant he finished reading the screenplay.
Asked Gregorian, "What do you think?"
"See the Dodger game last night?"
"C’mon, I’m a big boy. Tell me your thoughts."
A horror screenwriter is shocked to discover that his scripts are the templates for a serial killer. 2,251 words. Illustrations by Thomas Warming.
Jason Black’s work area is a cold grey-walled room with no furnishings other than his desk and chair. A pale overweight quite ordinary-looking screenwriter of the blockbuster Slicer film series, he’s dressed in standard writer gear: sweater and jeans with black plastic-framed glasses sitting slightly askew on his face. He breathes a deep sigh, then takes off his glasses to rub his eyes. He’s exhausted.
The phone rings. The cell phone screen reads: Asshole Agent.
Jason smirks and picks up the phone.
“Yeah, Mark,” answers Jason with a hint of disdain.
“Mark Stevens here, Jason.”
“I know, Mark. What is it?”
“Howya doin’ on Slicer, The Killing Kontinues?”
“It’s done. I changed the title to Slicer, Just Like the Old Slicer. In Fact It’s Pretty Much Exactly Like Every Slicer. ”
Disembowelment fantasies had made washed-up actress Vera North a star on the Walk of Gore. 2,273 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Sunset plays gentle with crumbling mansions and women. Bathed in the bloody light of a death-bound day, there was nothing between her front door and the sun except the Pacific. Between her and the sun was me and my chainsaw. She shielded her eyes.
“You won’t need that,” she said. “He already fell down dead.”
“Yeah, but I only got a Ford flatbed, not a semi.”
“I wanted to spare him the indignity of an autopsy.”
“Call another landscaper.”
She thought about it briefly. “You’re late, by the way.” Sunset showed who she was, or used to be: Vera North, straight-to-DVD splatter star supreme. She caught the flicker, and knew she was no longer mortal in my eyes. “Never mind,” she said.
Most past-it movie actresses get screechy when menials presume to knock on their front doors. Vera, who’d died a thousand slow gory excruciating dismemberment deaths for public consumption, was past caring. She asked if I wanted a cocktail.
Drinks clinked on the way out to the backyard, where we viewed the deceased.
The agency partner thought he had it all until he couldn’t escape his past any longer. 1,736 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Dan’s unraveling began with the search for a new assistant and fully bloomed with a stupid fight his son had at school.
Gabe, his newly promoted assistant at the talent agency, was arguing with the HR woman, whose name Dan couldn’t bother to remember, right outside his office door.
“I was trying to have a call.” He punctuated it with a withering look shot at them both.
“Sorry, Dan,” Gabe offered. The HR woman just looked away. Gabe took the résumé from the HR woman’s hand and passed it to Dan, who’d left the entire process of weeding through the applicants to Gabe, only interviewing the final three to meet his high standards. Dan had rejected them all. “You don’t want to see this person.”
Dan began scanning this latest application. A woman who’d attended a community college in the Valley.
“She is extremely bright, competent and organized,” said the HR woman, defending her choice. “I think you should at least meet her.”
Hope convinces TV writers they can have stable careers while busy turning their real lives into disaster zones. 3,365 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Ben was trying to get on the show Pipeliners. It occupied his every waking thought.
In the gym, at WiSpa, getting French Basque dinner at Taix, during AA meetings, at home in Echo Park, on a third date with this Mexican TV actress named Gina Arana who said she was a Taurus and drove a Mustang, getting coffee at Tierra Mia, doing his Instagram, yoga, writing, reading pilot scripts, attending a meeting at the WGA, eating vegan food at Sage and pretending he liked it — it was all he thought about. Pipeliners, the new show in town that was hiring. Open writing staff. All levels. He was submitted for it and he was in with a shot.
Pipeliners was all he thought about because it was the only thing worth thinking about. That’s how it is: you want it, you have to take it. That’s what Hollywood teaches you.
A couple of writers he knew from the Writers’ Room on White Heat, the show he’d been on three years ago, had called him over the weekend and asked him if he’d been submitted for Pipeliners, too. White Heat had been kind of a Golden Age for them all, and the writers were still all tight. They shared info, they met for lunch and dinners still.
He told them he was being submitted for it, too.
TV writers rooms run on energy and vibe and any little thing can throw the balance off. 3,521 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
My jokes fall flat.
I’m flailing in the room and have been for weeks, maybe months.
My one-liners are stepped on. My blows don’t land and my tags are talked over. My asides fall from the side of mouth, stillborn. My pitches sputter out as I’m met with angled heads and scrunched brows. And those are the rare spurts when I’m vocalizing. The bulk of the long days my mouth moves only to chew stale Costco gum. I stare at the story notes scrawled on the greaseboard like they were rocket science. I play mind games with the clock.
I used to be, what is known in the industry, as “good in the room.” Some guys are great at breaking stories, others have a knack for delegating, there are the anti-social ones who churn out killer scripts, ones who can’t write but excel at punch-up. Fitzy always said a room was doomed to fail without a token fat guy who laughed a lot for good luck.
I’m the all around utility man. “Meet Don,” I imagine my agents pitching me to employers. “He’s been around the block. He’s good in a room.”
At least, I was.
Then Ethan arrived. He replaced our previous assistant, Tonya who left mid-season after getting an offer from a streaming service to develop a series based on her social media feed. Or something like that. At least Tonya kept the fridge stocked with La Croix and tread lightly.
The Hollywood film critic thinks he’s found the Cannes Film Festival killer. 2,626 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Part Five. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Ingrid Bjorge stretched across the hotel bed, then opened her eyes. “Good morning. I did not know you were here,” she said as she propped herself up.
“You were asleep when I came in last night. I didn’t want to wake you.” Ryan claimed.
Just as the Norwegian actress opened the room door, Ryan’s girlfriend Delisha nearly collided with her as the fashion model leaned forward to knock. She carried a bottle of Cristal and an envelope addressed to Ryan that was left for him at the front desk.
Ryan gestured toward Ingrid. “Does she look familiar to you?”
Delisha stared at Ingrid for a long second, then gazed at her from a side angle. She pointed to the window. “Look out in that direction with your chin tilted up. Look real serious.” Ingrid followed her direction, angling her head and gazing off with a blank expression.
Delisha clasped her hands. “It’s crazy. Is it true? Is it true?”
“Yes,” Ryan answered.
Delisha embraced Ingrid. “Oh, my God, the star of The Ice Princess. What is going on?”
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Ryan said. “Delisha, you can’t tell anyone in the meantime about Ingrid’s being alive. Not a word.”
The Hollywood film critic gets a gorgeous surprise at the Cannes Film Festival. 2,590 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Part Six. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
In the days since Ingrid Bjorge’s death, the entire Norwegian nation had taken the slain actress to its heart. The Ice Princess starlet’s murder when she and her film were supposed to open the first night of the Cannes Film Festival was a countrywide shock. Now her body would arrive on the ferry in a few minutes, then be carried by Viking pallbearers to the pyre.
The Bygdoy Peninsula is the untrammeled part of Norway’s capital city, the area with the museums and the Viking burial mounds. With its aggressive environmental protection laws, the Norwegian nation had kept it largely off limits to developers. An editorial in that morning’s Dagbladet acknowledged the irony of having the multibillionaire oil developer Gunnar Severeid, the mogul behind her movie, using it for the site of Ingrid’s funeral.
Following the autopsy, she had been transported back to her homeland on Gunnar’s personal plane, a Gulfstream G650. Her ashes had been placed earlier that morning in a magnificent oak coffin in Oslo. On this day of national mourning, Norway’s crown prince Harald had delivered a moving eulogy at the Ibsen Theater in Kungs Gate Park.
Erik Bjorge, the costume designer of The Ice Princess and Ingrid’s one-time husband, had gotten little sleep in the last several days. The Cannes police had grilled him, and, even more vexing, Gunnar had questioned him aggressively about the evening of the murder. With his fashion line positioned for the entire world to see at the premiere of The Ice Princess, Erik had believed he would be the Versace of Norway, the Gucci of the fjords. Now that dream was gone. Most of his clothing creations were still on a shipping vessel back in the Cannes harbor. He never bothered to unload it after Ingrid was killed. Instead, he went back to Oslo for her funeral.
Considering that Ryan had been up for several nights, found not one but two corpses, been chased through Cannes by what he thought were cops, had delivered an impromptu speech before a packed room of journalists, Ryan wasn’t too worse for wear. He recalled that Sean Connery line from the third Indiana Jones, where Harrison Ford is whizzing along on a motorcycle with his dad clinging on the back for dear life. “This is not archeology,” Connery groused as Indy accelerated away from the bad guys.
“This is not film criticism,” Ryan muttered to himself.
The Hollywood film critic is a suspect in a second murder at the Cannes Film Festival. 2,903 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Five. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
There were enough security guards to stock an island dictatorship. Instead of colorful uniforms with feathered hats, gaudy medals and polished swords, they wore Armani tuxedos. The crack unit stood at attention in front of the mansion gate for the Cannes Film Festival’s elegant party. Despite their disciplined pose, their eyes were riveted on Ryan’s model girlfriend Delisha.
Within seconds, an attendant pulled up with a gleaming Aston Martin V12 bestowed on Ryan for the long drive back to town and belonging to one of the movie producer-distributors. At least half the valet parkers rushed to help Delisha into the passenger side. She slid into the classic vehicle. “Allons y,” Delisha called out, bestowing a celebratory wave.
Ryan idled the car as the iron gates snapped open with crisp precision, spreading their steel in a deferential backward swoop, like an old-fashioned servant. Only then did Ryan punch the pedal and sail through the estate’s stone entrance.
Delisha clasped his hand. “Home, James.”
“Bond, James Bond,” Ryan called out in his best 007 accent.
Delisha giggled and planted a quick kiss on his neck. For the moment, Ryan felt like the glamorous super-agent. The trouble was: he didn’t really know how to work a shift. Maybe, if it was all downhill, they could continue in this gear.
“You’re grinding. You’ve got to let it out,” Delisha said.