Two women start the disspiriting process of making an indie film. 3,231 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
On a warm evening in July, Rachel Scanlon and Stacey Clark were sitting at a tiny table overlooking the Chateau Marmont hotel bar.
"Andy Dickson," Stacey said. "Tommy Bell. Marty Cohen. Mark DeSalvo. Peter Steinkamp. Susan Drexel."
Rachel looked up. "What made you think of all these people?"
"They’re on my list. Don’t you ever read those alumnae reports that Dalton sends out?"
"I never open my mail from Dalton or Hampshire. They always want money and I never have any."
"They also have a section with information on your classmates. Annie Sobel is a painter. She just bought a loft in Tribeca and had two one-woman shows at the Holly Solomon gallery. Mark DeSalvo inherited four million dollars from his grandfather. He supports the arts and collects Rookwood pottery. Peter Steinkamp has a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and is renovating an old firehouse in Brooklyn."
"Does he support the arts, too?”
"I bet he does. And I have two artists in mind. They’re planning to make a low budget movie."
The female producer busy with the film’s problems is about to be betrayed. Or is she? 3,655 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The first time Marie fired someone they actually deserved it. It was a prop man who, for some strange reason, repeatedly failed to show up with the right props on the day of a big set piece. There were no excuses because it wasn’t that difficult an assignment since most of the actors were playing well… filmmakers in a film within a film. Marie initially felt guilty because the man had kids but she ended up embracing him when he unexpectedly appeared and danced up a storm at the wrap party. She made him feel part of the group because Wisconsin Marie emerged from hibernation the second a film wrapped, jettisoning her signature on-set death stare which, by now, everyone on this New Mexico shoot had experienced at least once.
“Moving on!” yelled the 1st AD. Marie tracked her crew as they scrambled into vans and jumped on 4×4’s to get transported up to the next location. Marie had used the same 1st AD five times before but since he was originally attached to direct this script, she remained suspicious of some of his decisions regarding the shooting schedule. She believed that the assistant director, who always had to do what amounted to hours of homework after the Martini shot, had the hardest job on the set, besides her own. Would he undermine the production to get the director fired and himself promoted as a last second replacement to realize his directorial debut? Maybe, but his allegiance was to Marie, not to the director, and the inside info he shared with her was invaluable. She couldn’t pull that trigger.
The accountant annoyed her. The stereotype of the uptight, one-dimensional numbers man was not something Marie subscribed to after dealing with one years ago who deftly fleeced $275,000 from a budget. Marie disliked this guy although she wasn’t sure why. Still, he was universally disliked, and all crews focus their dislike on someone, so his firing would mean that the crew would waste time finding a new person to dislike, not to mention the fact that he had possession of all her petty cash receipts. He could have made Marie’s life miserable with an audit if she gave him a reason for revenge.
Shading her eyes from the mid-morning light, Marie began to wonder if she were looking to fire someone just to keep the tradition going. A thought that fifteen years ago would have depressed her, now gave her confidence. Was she over-compensating for her gender or had she just become someone who fed on the need to sacrifice an innocent to the filmmaking gods?
A demanding female film producer is just doing her job. Or is she? 2,949 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Four weeks into a six-week shoot, the crew was starting to drag. An iffy subplot was omitted due to uncooperative weather and the lack of a cover set, yet the production was still three days behind schedule and that was before yesterday’s disaster. It was a long hike up a steep hill shooting in the rugged sticks of New Mexico, and the supposedly trained horses, which Marie secured at a discount, had been spooked by the ginormous 12K HMI lights that sparked uncontrollably during last night’s downpour. Despite weather reports to the contrary, the rain turned into a flash flood that wiped out the corral still under construction and nearly cost a young carpenter his life.
The scorching morning sun sucked surface water from the muck and made the live trees croak and the dead ones reek. Slogging around ground zero of the production where they parked the honeywagons, trucks, and trailers, Marie’s head-to-toe cowgirl getup shielded her from the elements and proved why even the Indians eventually adopted the attire of their oppressors. She hitched up her Wranglers and adjusted the red cowboy kerchief that kept the grit off her face so she could better inhale the breeze that bugled the crew to attention. She needed to shake things up and the most efficient way to do that was to fire someone, eliminating a laggard and putting the rest of the crew on notice.
Marie considered getting rid of the young carpenter who didn’t follow the weather emergency protocol. The one she had communicated on the call sheet in great detail the first day of principal photography. But because he hadn’t been informed personally to leave the corral set, and since the set medic painstakingly nursed his abrasions while complimenting the injured party on his courage and commitment to the project, the young carpenter’s firing might be an invitation to a lawsuit Marie would rather avoid.
As the breakfast burritos were handed down from the catering truck, Marie confirmed the unwritten rule that Above-The-Line personnel could prioritize themselves without explanation. She cut in the front of the line and grabbed a burrito without sausage or bacon, scanning faces for the best candidate to can if anyone dare object to her power play. A few feet away at the craft services table, several crew members halted their small talk and stepped out of her way as Marie’s assistant, known affectionately as Little Marie, robotically handed her boss a cup of java with an extra kick of espresso. Marie inhaled the coffee before she stained it with a drop of low fat milk and took her first sip. She had had phone sex with Mr. Steve to relieve the tension of the night before, but like instant coffee that has no residual aroma, the tension remained.
The fustrated filmmaker goes on a TV talk show to save his movie. 2,295 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1969
It was nearly four o’clock when Tall parked in a loading zone at the CBS lot, and ran into Stage 17. From the lobby, Tall could hear The Dean Keller Show orchestra welcoming a guest, and the audience applauding. Above a set of double doors, a red “Live Show Recording” sign blinked.
“Mr. McCollum!” a woman said in a low, excited voice.
Tall turned to see Tandy Dale, the associate producer who’d handled him the day before, walking toward him with a clipboard against her chest. “When I heard the door open,” Tandy continued, “I thought a civilian was trying to sneak in.”
“Would it be possible to get backstage?” Tall asked. “My wife Diana lost a little enamel compact that belonged to her mother when we were here last night for my appearance, and it’s the only place we haven’t looked.”
“They cleaned this morning, and didn’t turn anything in. But I suppose it could’ve fallen in the couch cushion?”
Tall followed Tandy around the perimeter of the stage. As she unlocked a door marked “PRIVATE,” she looked back at Tall. “Would you like to know your audience scores from last night?”
A rebel filmmaker struggles to deter professional and personal disaster. 2,334 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1969
“You’re a fucking kamikaze pilot, Tall,” said Jack Benton from behind his teak desk. “And you just crashed into your own fucking ship!” He wore a chambray blouse and a necklace of mahogany beads, but on his wrist dangled a gold Rolex. And only two days earlier, Jay Sebring had flown back from Las Vegas just to give him a haircut.
“And you didn’t just kill yourself,” Benton continued, pounding the heel of his palm onto a year-old issue of a Black Panther newspaper he’d never read. “You killed me, you killed your wife, and you killed that little band of outlaws you have marooned out there in the desert with you. I’m sure they’ll pretend like it’s a blessing — since they think they’ve transcended the fucking material world like an order of fucking Tibetan monks. But let me tell you a little secret. If anyone had gotten famous from this stillborn movie of yours, they’d be buying Jaguars and houses in fucking Malibu.”
“I just earned you lines around the block!” yelled Tall, standing in the middle of the office, rocking from his toes to his heels with the violent energy of a wrestler on his starting line. He was short, but broad across the shoulders, so that with his arms crossed, his buckskin jacket stretched taut across his upper back. His old tan boots chirred as he pitched onto his toes, and his wavy blonde hair curled down his neck.
“How the hell do you figure that, Tall? From my experience, people go to movies to be entertained — not to feel like they’ve fallen off a roof.”
A wannabe filmmaker finds an unconventional way to get his horror script made. 3,216 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“You understand what I want you to do?”
“Yeah,” I said. It was easy to say it. Flowed off the tongue. I wasn’t even worried. What was that line from that Hannibal film, the one with the lambs? His pulse never got above a certain number, he was so relaxed? That’s how I felt. Relaxed.
“And you finance my film.”
“And I get gross participation, backend, off-the-top. The works.”
“The works,” he agreed.
I didn’t smile. But I should have. You don’t smile, though, when you make a Breaking Bad deal like that. I don’t mean a deal with AMC; I mean, a deal that will put you on the other side. For good. I was about to become a Walter White. And I was only in my early 20s.
Got to start sometime in Hollywood.
A writer has to get out of a movie job contract and off an exotic island. 1,918 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The next morning, Jenny Logan came to escort me to Jack’s place. She didn’t say a word about the job offer she’d made me to come from L.A. to this isolated island off Cambodia and write and possibly direct a film. But, as we stopped outside the steps of the beachside mansion belonging to the movie studio owner, a Luxembourg billionaire, I noticed cut marks on both Jenny’s wrists. They were obviously recent.
Jenny saw me looking at them. “I’m sorry if I’ve been weird, James. I think, when I get back to L.A., I’ll be my normal self again.”
She gave me a kiss on the lips, and then pulled back before I could turn it into something intimate.
Just then, a tropical rainstorm snapped into life and I rushed inside the palatial home. Jack was short, stocky and tanned but not even plentiful spa treatments could hide his fifty-something age. He smiled like a villain from a Bond movie and welcomed me inside. Of course, Jack’s bodyguard stood expressionless five feet behind us at all times.
“Thank you for this amazing opportunity, Mr. Hauser,” I said politely. I noted he didn’t offer me a drink, not even tap water. At least in Hollywood they offer you a bottle of Voss before they drain you of life.
A writer gets a movie job offer on an exotic island and goes to check it out. 2,134 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was bang in the middle of another Writers Guild strike, and I woke up with a throbbing headache. I hadn’t drunk more than half a bottle of Trader Joe cheap red, and in those days that wasn’t enough for me to suffer a hangover. No, the pounding in my forehead was a form of dread at the thought of traipsing over to Sony Studios to join my comrades on the picket line yet again. I didn’t even know what we were fighting for exactly: just something to do with making money from the Internet. All I did know for certain was that I was broke, and my damn headache wouldn’t go away.
As I sipped a cup of coffee inside one of the few remaining rent-controlled apartments in Santa Monica, I felt entirely disillusioned. I couldn’t turn on the TV for any respite because, without the writers, the programming was filled with reality shows and repeats. Nor did I feel like going out for a walk, as the June gloom had set in since L.A. is never as sunny as people like to think. So, instead, I stared at my laptop screen trying to come up with an original story idea.
In theory, this quiet period would give Hollywood writers an opportunity to delve into our artistry and create something we cared about. But my screen remained blank for an hour. If I’m honest, it was a futile task; I hadn’t been able to write anything original since my first script that had snagged me representation. Everything else since then had been assignments.
I was trying very hard to remember what I cared about – maybe that was giving me the headache – when my phone rang. This hadn’t happened in a few weeks. I feared that a comrade was calling out of disgust with my inability to show up at the picket line. But the call was from my agent.
Had the strike suddenly ended? Or was she quitting the business to start up a yoga studio?
A film director in crisis must split time between her pre-production and her father. 2,492 words. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It was a few days before Christmas and I was ensconced at the Hotel Raphael in Paris. Jack Kennedy, Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando had all stayed there. The Arc de Triomphe and the Trocadero were steps away. In my suite, elegant tapestries, wooden wall panels and period furniture surrounded me. I was back in my home country. By all accounts, I should have been thrilled but I was miserable.
My father was dying.
I had come to Paris in October for pre-production on the sequel to a celebrated and profitable erotic romantic drama which at that point was an orphan without a title. The project was at a standstill as we waited and waited for the starring actor from the original movie, Rex Durand, to sign his contract. In the meantime, he approved me as the director. Getting the job turned out to be the easiest part of making the movie.
The film was to be my third directorial assignment and to try me in ways I had never been tried before, as if all the negative forces in the universe had banded together and decided “Let’s see what she’s really made of.”
Among the complexities was the financing of the film which was partially coming from state-sponsored film funds in three European countries. Each country had requirements attached to the money. We would have to shoot in the trio of nations, and the cast and crews would have to be split between them as well. Having a European passport had been one of the reasons I had been chosen. And the other was my directing work and its sexy edge. For this was to be a very sexy film.
Who will succeed this ailing Big Media chairman/CEO? Only the board knows. 3,042 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Dennis Medwick was up at six, peering through the bedroom window of his Bel Air home, watching the gleaming black Tesla pull up the driveway and stop, idling to a barely audible purr. He heard stirring and saw his wife Sandra, habitually a late Saturday morning riser, already sitting up, propped on her elbows, sleep mask off.
"What’s with you?" he asked, glancing at his watch. "It’s midnight Sandra time."
She ignored his gibe. "Bert here yet?"
"Outside. I’d better get moving. You know, it’s gang warfare day."
"I’m still baffled by all this," she said, swinging her legs off the bed. "You’re the studio head. You made more money than any of the ten morons who came before you. You’re going to be CEO, chairman, macher-in- chief, Dennis. Period," she said, lacing her arms across her chest. "I’m confident that sanity will ultimately prevail — even in this looney town." After a reflective pause, she added, "Doesn’t it?"
"We’ll see," he laughed, padding across to the bathroom.
A film financier asks something but expects nothing from the producers and screenwriter. 2,543 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“Everyone there?” Mannie Jacobs bellowed, his super-lawyer’s telephone voice bouncing off the walls of the Periodic Pictures conference room.
“All here, Mannie. Me, Cal, Jim and Dex.”
“So Eric Greenhill came to see me. He’s a big hedge fund guy who wants to put $100 million into a single film with you.”
“A nut job with an agenda?” Cal asked.
“No. I checked him out. He runs a $15 billion fund. He’s 38, personally worth $2.5 billion, no scars or warts we could find. He lost a gorgeous young wife to breast cancer three years ago. Got two kids. A bit eccentric, but in another era you would call him a straight arrow.”
“Why us?” Cal Lerner, Periodic’s CEO, asked.
“He’s screened all your productions, both movies and TV series. He believes Periodic has integrity of intent. Why I’ll never know.”
“Sure he’s not a nutter, Mannie?” Dexter Foley cracked.
A showbiz journo goes Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole and ends up at a hellacious party. 3,477 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
As I lay down, I remembered thinking that I would only close my eyes for a moment. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how intensely I stared, I couldn’t see my way through the thicket of branches and leaves to the clearing that surely waited beyond. I couldn’t even be sure how long I’d been out here crawling up the cliff face after leaving my hotel in Beverly Hills — five minutes? five hours? — wandering aimlessly through these dark woods frustrated, disoriented and suddenly very tired. I, the infamous entertainment journalist Frederick M. Barclay, was about to sit down with the even more infamous studio head Nero in his secluded Bel Air lair to discuss the state of the art. I’d been told that Tony Billings would arrange it. If only I could find him.
Then I found a face staring down at me.
“Jack,” he said, reaching down and taking my hand. “Jack Dante.”
“Of course I recognize you,” I said, as he pulled me to my feet. “You’re one of the greatest living British filmmakers.”
“Am I still alive? I question that,” he said. “I question it every day. More and more, I wander around this city like a ghost.”
“I’m Fred Barclay, the writer,” I said. “I was on my way to the Nero party. I must have gotten lost. How did you find me?”
A Hollywood cad tries to seduce an innocent teenaged girl only to get what he deserves. 2,824 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
At age sixteen, Tessa Markey learned once and for all that fate would not be thwarted. No matter how elaborate her avoidance strategy and cautious her moves, fate simply bided its time, and then it came for her.
Tessa’s father was a singer and actor who had once “turned Hollywood on its ear,” according to Tessa’s mother. But the bottle would not leave him be. His frequent absences had elongated, like a piece of chewing gum stretched, until the connection with his family became a tenuous strand. The year was 1966: Tessa and her mother now lived in a grimy white stucco apartment house in south Santa Monica that stood as a testament to the past decade’s casual building codes. The place even had a name, “The Spafford,” written with a flourish above the entrance in silver glitter gone gray and dour, like an aged starlet. Tessa thought of the suffering that resided behind every door in her neighborhood. The homes were flimsy, with cheap siding and fiberglass awnings bolted on cockeyed. The yards were patchy and sparse, littered with battered toys and obsolete engine parts. A fever seemed to emanate from the windows, from the very crevasses of the sidewalk. At night, shouting and screams pierced the dark along with sounds of shattering glass and occasional gunfire.
The Spafford fronted the deadly torrent of rush hour traffic on Olympic Boulevard, which every morning Tessa crossed at her peril to catch the city bus to school. The high school clerks knew of Mr. Markey’s fondness for pills and liquor. They also knew that, after her husband left, Mrs. Markey’s own nervous condition had worsened, limiting her to part-time work.
“Well, Mom’s in the bucket, too,” noted the junior class guidance counselor to the attendance clerk. “Either we find little Miss Markey an after-school job or she is going to end up on the wrong side of the tracks.”
So the high school placement officer sent Tessa Markey to babysit for the Bigelows’ two children. Hugh Bigelow was the vice president of finance for a large movie studio. (“I count the beans for the big boys,” he would explain.) He was a pear-shaped Texan with watery blue eyes and flaxen hair pasted across the reddish dome of his skull. His accent was redolent of sagebrush, dogies and lariats, which may have been why Ida Bigelow talked over him. Mrs. Bigelow was small and quick, with curly light brown hair that fell to her shoulders. She came from one of those states that were all jammed into the upper right side of the country and whose names had to be printed out in the Atlantic Ocean.
A famous actor and renown director find themselves in a terrifying scene together. 3,867 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Lew Baird removed his suit jacket and hung it in the closet, pleased to find actual wooden hangers, the kind that most hotels are afraid the guests will steal. He thought of removing his pants as well, just to keep them from wrinkling, but on the off chance that a maid popped in and found him in his BVDs, he decided against it. She’d probably sell the information or post it online and his Twitter account would explode with the pros and cons of his underwear choices.
Picking over the fruit and cheese basket, he decided to sample neither. The cheese would give him stink breath and the pineapple fiber might get lodged in his teeth. He had brought neither a toothbrush nor floss to the film junket. Of course, he could always ask some publicist to run out to a drugstore and get some. Seemed like an awful lot of trouble; not the act of dispatching someone to CVS, but rather the effort of having to summon a flack and convey his wishes.
Hang in there, just one more interview and the day will be over, he told himself as he eased into an armchair, shut his eyes and took a few of those deep relaxation breaths which Bo, his trainer, had taught him. If Lew could only think of a way to blow off that meeting tonight with Alice and her investor and ask Greta up for dinner. They could have Chinese or Italian and watch one of the Academy screeners gathering dust on the shelf of his home screening room. Then he remembered that his assistant had flown home for a family emergency. And since Lew didn’t travel with a posse, he had no one to pick up take-out from Mr. Chow or Spago. He couldn’t very well expect Greta to bring her own food; and he certainly didn’t want to be seen in public with her. The relationship was too new for that.
Before he could think on it further, he had fallen asleep. He was awoken by a meek looking woman. “Mr. Baird,” she said in a supplicant tone. “Sorry to disturb you, but we’re ready for your 4:15.”
More conflict as a struggling screenwriter and a famed director are now locked in a test of wills. 3,587 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was a gorgeous crystal-clear morning in Bel Air. The sky was blue, birds sang, the pool sparkled. Inside the pool house of legendary septuagenarian director Roger Edmund’s hilltop mansion, screenwriter Paul Slater, on a cot asleep, spasmed in the grip of a nightmare. There was a knock at the door. Paul woke with a start, looked around and remembered where he was. On the doorstep stood Maria the maid carrying a breakfast tray. She entered and put it down on the table beside Paul’s laptop. Paul noticed a note on the tray. He picked it up and read: I EXPECT PAGES. WE’LL MEET LATER. ROGER
Paul was agitated. Pages? What pages? We’ve only been working together for 48 hours and don’t even have a basic story yet. He asked Maria, "Where’s Roger?”
“Señor Roger?” Maria pointed toward the driveway. Paul ran out. At that moment, Ernesto, the houseman, was helping Roger and his wife Karen, the Undersecretary of Commerce, into a limo. Roger’s hand was bandaged and Karen had a Band-Aid over her eye after their contretemps the night before. Ernesto closed the door and the limo drove off as Paul appeared.
“Roger! Roger, wait!” Too late. The limo disappeared through the gate. Paul turned to Ernesto. “Where did he go?”
“To the airport. To see his wife off. He’ll be back in a few hours.”
“Look, Ernesto, I need to go get some reference books–” Paul suddenly noticed something was missing. “Hey, where’s my rental car?”
An unscrupulous film producer commands her assistant to lie at a major studio meeting. That’s not all she does. Part Two of Working From Home. 3,118 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
I used to wake up at dawn and walk down Barham Blvd, past Forest Lawn Cemetery, to the gates of Warner Bros, then double back down Barham to Cahuenga, up to the gates of Universal. It took two hours and the walk uphill was brutal. I’d peer over the imposing fences and watch the luxury cars drive on. Someday, somehow, I would be in one of them. This is that moment – well, kind of.
Arielle and I are driving to the Santa Clarita movie ranch for the final chase sequence for Other Sidez performed by actor Paul Samuels’ stunt double. The studio execs and producers behind Other Sidez are attempting a Hail Mary so that Paul and director Gary Phillips can put aside their differences and complete principal photography. Most importantly, Arielle leaves her dogs in the backyard to go on this car trip.
Then something even more incredible happens.
“I can’t go to this meeting,” Arielle says to me. We’re in stop-and-go traffic on the 101. Arielle is driving. Someone on the road honks and Arielle accelerates too hard. “I’m giving you an opportunity here.” She drives faster when she’s angry. “I want you to go to this meeting for me.”
“Are they going to ask me about the Ferrari?” I ask, confused. That was the only thing that qualified me to participate in this meeting.