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."
He may never win an Oscar as a director. But he might snag one for acting. 1.932 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The interview takes place in a suite at the Mark Hotel in New York. Although the director detests speaking to journalists, he understands the imperative of publicizing his new film. His last two movies disappeared with barely a trace; they can’t even be found on YouTube. At 59, he knows that if this film tanks, he may no longer be able to continue doing what he loves.
The interviewer is 26, a recent graduate of an obscure film school where the director fears he may be exiled if this film also fails at the box office. The aspiring critic has made several short YouTube videos analyzing movies of directors she admires and has begun to develop a following. She thinks that an interview with this controversial director can build her audience even more. Although she loves his first movie, his new film puzzles and disturbs her. She’s not sure what to make of it, or the director. At film school she took a class in documentaries and agrees with Jean Rouch, the French anthropologist/filmmaker, that the camera can unlock closed doors and provoke subjects to reveal more about themselves than they realize. She hopes the camera will do the same today and help her make up her mind about the director. She’s never filmed an interview before, though, and she’s apprehensive about it.
She knocks softly on the door of the hotel room. The director opens it, glass in hand. She wonders if it holds water or vodka. Entering the suite with her camera equipment, she looks around uneasily.
INTERVIEWER: I thought your publicist would be here.
DIRECTOR: I don’t have a publicist.
The robot studio chief is interrogated about embezzlement. 2,011 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I have a home. It is a penthouse on the Wilshire Corridor. My apartment features floor to ceiling windows with a view of the coastline and concrete ribbons of freeway. Many of my guests say the view is breathtaking. Beverly Hills is up the street. The studio pays for the digs: sophisticated Jamie Drake décor. Poggenpohl kitchen. Boston ferns situated about.
I am meeting Tanner Gilroy in a few minutes. Jonathan will accompany him.
This should be interesting.
The doorbell rings and the maid answers. “And who shall I say is calling?” I can hear her ask.
“He’s expecting us,” Jonathan replies.
I am a state-of-the-art humanoid and the first of my kind studio chief of Titan Pictures. My executives wait for me in the living room and then I make my entrance. Shake hands.
“Richard, this is Tanner, our head of security,” Jonathan says grimly.
I nod politely. “Gentlemen, shall we have a seat?”
Two first-time film producers get schooled by the reality of teaming up together. 2,909 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
In other parts of the country, networking is largely structured, taking place predominantly through civic organizations, professional groups, and charitable institutions. In Los Angeles, where showbiz is king, the phenomenon is far more random yet ubiquitous. Business ties are often formed at parties, screenings, and social gatherings. Others begin at gyms, yoga and Pilates classes. Even pre-schools and Little League games provide opportunities, as do weddings and funerals, plus Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Also never to be overlooked are meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
It was thanks to AA that Russo and Adler became acquainted. Initially, it was little more than the kind of brief acknowledgments exchanged by regulars. But one Monday evening, instead of heading directly home in the aftermath, Russo agreed to join a group headed for late night coffee. As six "Friends Of Bill W" grabbed a booth away from other denizens of the night at a 24-hour diner, Adler nodded at Russo. "Nick, right?"
Russo nodded. "And you’re Jerry?"
"Guilty as charged."
Once orders were taken, group talk superseded individual conversations; it was only when the two men were strolling toward their cars afterwards that Adler rekindled their brief chat. "So what do you do?" he asked Russo.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A Red Carpet meet compels this couple to keep going. 2,312 words. Part One. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Backstory: My name is Nat, I work in the mailroom at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and I went to the Academy Awards. Instead of sitting up in the lousy seats with the rest of the AMPAS staff, I met Erin Teller, the Erin Teller, and she sort of made me her date. I sat with her and she won the Best Actress Oscar for When The Mountain Sings.
And now we’re going to the Governors Ball.
I am not making this shit up.
So Erin and I are walking out of the Dolby when Erin grabs my hand and asks me where I’m going because, duh, don’t I know the Governors Ball is upstairs and she’s starving to death. She says some of the cast from Hamilton is performing and isn’t it the best musical ever. I tell her I haven’t seen it and she says, boy, I’m in for a surprise.
This whole night is a surprise. Having my date get a migraine so I go to the Awards solo, then running into Erin Teller – literally, when her limo door knocks me down. Now I can’t figure out why she hooked on to me. But I’m not complaining.
We’re riding up the escalator to the Governors Ball and Erin has her Oscar clutched in her fist. Occasionally, she waves it in the air and says, “Woo hoo,” and people shout, “Woo hoo” back at her. This is the most amazing night of her life. And, fuck me, I never want it to end.
Will ambition kickstart his movie career or kill his marriage? 2,292 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“So, yeah, this is risky. But life goes fast, Emma. We’re both starting to realize that. In two years we’ll be invited to our fifteen-year high school reunions and the next fifteen years will fly by. I want to have fun making films.”
“No, I think you want to feel like an important filmmaker. You want to drive some German sports car around Beverly Hills and sit by the swimming pool with movie stars and get the cool table at Craig’s. You want to read about yourself in Variety. You want to be respected by people you hate. Fine. But there’s no way to get that stuff unless you gamble with both of our lives. You can’t spin it, Mike. Paramount is safe, that’s a fact. You have friends there. If something happens, they’ll find you a job somewhere else. You’re always telling me that getting fired is the best way to get a promotion by moving from studio to studio. It’s a club and you’re finally a member. If you turn your back on that, they’ll be rooting for you to fail. And when it happens, you’ll be tainted goods. Is that what you want?”
Mike spoke very slowly into the burning silence of her stare. “I am not going to fail.”
“Really? So then tell me: when have you ever succeeded?”
“That’s not fair.”
“My life is at stake. So, sorry, fair doesn’t matter to me right now. What matters is making you see the truth before it’s too late.”
Mike rummaged helplessly for something to say back to Emma. It seemed that all the words had been used up. There were just three left.
“I want this.”
Every movie career has ups and downs. But every marriage has a breaking point. 1,924 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jim pushed his glass aside and leaned forward.
“Let me tell you what’s really going on,” he said. “Bill Terhune has a deal going.”
“Bill Terhune always has a deal going,” Mike replied. “He probably had deals going in kindergarten – ‘You cover for me during nap time and you can have my cookie at snack.’”
“This is real."
“So was that. Not to mention the black market Lincoln logs. And the crayon exchange. Apparently he had the only sharpener.”
Jim had to laugh. “I mean it, Mike, this is serious. He found someone with money.”
It was the one sentence guaranteed to knock the smile off Mike’s face and silence him. This was what everyone was looking for, the seam of gold in the mountains, the genie in the battered lamp, the copy of the Declaration of Independence on the garage sale table: someone with money to make movies.
“Who is it?”
The female filmmakers finally, finally, shoot their indieprod. 2,893 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
For Rachel and Stacey, the making of Escapade was a kind of blissful dream. Part of that feeling came from the European landscapes, which had a sort of abstract beauty since the filmmakers never stayed anywhere long enough or took enough time away from the work to absorb their reality. So they were carrying away memories like photographs. Not that there was anything wrong with that. They enjoyed floating. They were living in their own world for those eight weeks and everything else was just backdrop.
It was so easy, that was the astonishing part. It had begun with everyone’s small investments and then Peter Sandrian’s hundred thousand dollars and just continued, like a heartbeat, with the casting, their arrival in Paris, Hector Passy just walking up to them in a cafe and solving a dozen problems at once.
It seemed that every circumstance conspired at perfection: weather and bureaucracies, mood and coincidence and the currency exchange rate. Every location worked out easily. And Rachel’s unnerving cry of "Let’s put it in the movie!" soon became a standing joke. That was how it went. The movie was as much accident as design. Many of the things people wound up liking best were devised on the spur of the moment. For Rachel it was just common sense to take good stuff wherever she found it and use everything. She hated waste.
She was equally pragmatic about giving direction to her actors. She never couched her comments in Actor’s Studio jargon or Hollywood catchphrases. Instead she’d say specific things like "Give it an extra beat before you talk," or "Fall down when you say that line." Any time acting was in evidence, it was overacting to Rachel. "Don’t show us how hard you’re working," she said once. "Leave that to Meryl Streep."
The two women indie filmmakers now must find a cinematographer. 3,224 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Rachel and Stacey rehearsed Escapade for weeks, a luxury that no studio production could afford. At the same time they were making travel plans and renewing their passports. They wanted to organize the whole film in advance, but there wasn’t much they could accomplish until they actually arrived in Paris. They were set to leave April 1, and booked the others two weeks later. Outside the travel agency, with all the tickets clutched in one hand, Rachel threw her arms around her friend. "We’re really going, now. It’s official.”
The week before they left, Rachel threw a dinner party for the cast and crew. She wanted everyone comfortable with everyone else before they started shooting a low-budget film at close quarters in a foreign country. It was an enjoyable afternoon – volleyball on the beach, an early cook-out, people having fun. The only disturbing moment happened with Emily. Again.
They were outside in the deepening evening. A cool wind was blowing in off the ocean and Rachel was getting hamburgers onto buns before they burned. Emily slipped beside Rachel as she worked.
“So what am I feeling now?” Rachel asked her.
“Suspicious. Uncomfortable. Annoyed. It’s just something I can do. I wish you trusted me more. I could help you. I want to talk about… ” Emily looked around and lowered her voice, “Rafe DeMarco. He isn’t what he seems. You should get away from him.”
“I’m leaving for Europe with him in less than a week.”
“He’s trouble. I just think you should get as far away from him as possible.”
Rachel stared at her. “Where am I supposed to find a new DP who’ll fly his whole crew to Europe on four days’ notice?”
Will the two female indie filmmakers find an angel investor? 3,532 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
A few weeks before Christmas, Rachel was awakened at six in the morning by a long distance call. "This better be important."
The deep voice on the other end of the line sounded amused. "I think you could say that."
"Who is this?"
"Peter Sandrian. When we were in eighth grade, I took you to Wollman ice-skating rink in Central Park. You had to hold me up the whole time. The insides of my ankles were practically touching the ice. I fell in love with you that day, Rachel. But I never got up the courage to tell you."
Rachel laughed, fully awake now. "Oh no! I had a crush on you for years. Why didn’t you ever call me?"
"Why didn’t you call me?"
"Girls weren’t supposed to."
"We blew it, didn’t we? We were idiots.”
There was a moment of silence while the reverberations of gratuitous adolescent heartbreak subsided.
"What are you doing now?" Rachel asked. "Where are you calling from?
"Cleveland. I’m married; we have four kids. I’m the new Chief Executive Officer of Sandrian Pharmaceuticals. Dad wanted to take early retirement, and I knew the business inside out, so now I get to work the sixteen-hour days with occasional trips to Des Moines or Omaha. It’s not quite as glamorous as the movie business."
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 indie filmmaker begs and borrows to finish her shoot – and feed her dog. 2,006 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Indie filmmaker Annie Grayson wasn’t young. But she had more energy than any obnoxious 22-year-old snot-nosed kid out of film school. Both crew members Nigel and Ted admired her for that. So they were onboard as much as they could be without too much self-sacrifice for a very likely doomed project.
Nigel hated to think of it like that. But Annie would not listen to reason. Yes, collaboration could make it work. But not if she refused their help and knowledge.
“First-time filmmakers don’t jump into features or even thirty minute shorts. They do ten minute shorts, or five minute shorts,” Nigel said to Ted, the sound man.
“George Lucas will tell you he started out with a thirty second short and a lot of storywriting experience,” said Ted, lighting up a joint. “Want a toke?”
“Thanks.” Nigel, the cinematographer, said and inhaled. “Then she complains that Tricia is always late. No shit. Actors are always late. They’re prima donnas, even the unknowns.” He let out the breath.
“Especially the unknowns.”
An indie filmmaker likes to play the underdog. With her dog. 2,210 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was a hot Los Angeles summer day. Annie Grayson, the alleged author and self-proclaimed indie film authority, brought a dog to her set, which was the street in front of the Century Plaza Towers. The mangy dirty mutt with matted hair was very unhappy to be there in the heat. But Annie dragged him around everywhere. “Louie, come here!” she yelled as she pulled his thick rope leash.
Nigel, with his DSLR camera and lugging a Flycam rig, spotted her from across the street and thought, Is that her? With the dog? She looks younger in her picture. Ok, here we go. I can’t believe she brought a dog.
He walked up. “Annie?” The dog starting barking at him.
“Louie!” she yelled. The dog got quiet. “You’re Nigel? Tricia is late. She’s always late. I’m calling her now.”
“That’s typical,” Nigel said, shaking her hand as the dog barked again.
“Louie! Shut up!” Annie said. “She can’t find parking. Here, talk to her.” Annie handed Nigel the phone.
“There are free spaces right off Olympic,” Nigel shrugged. Whatever. Actors are always late. He looked at Annie and the dog and thought, She brought a crazed wild animal to a film set and she’s worried that the actor is late? Looking back, Nigel didn’t think Annie deserved to call the dog hers. But at the time he was hired to film her project.
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?
The director wraps her film by punishing and praising those who deserve it. 2,474 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Fed up with my lead actress Brittany, I decided to pay a visit to Rex Durand in his suite. The famous actor in my movie Lost Encounter, now shooting, was not feeling well. His bodyguard was at his side. His dresser was also there. Everyone confided that Brittany was sleeping with the screenwriter. I had to wonder how much rehearsal had really been going on between them. Obviously, very little. For an actress already on shaky ground, would this affair be the final blow? I had to talk to the scripter. I was sworn to secrecy not to reveal my sources, as the lovers did not want me to know.
The following day another six hours were los because of Brittany. Once more, we did the best we could by shooting around her. I had had enough. At first, the screenwriter denied anything was going on. I told him I knew the truth and it was pointless to deny it. And if her work kept suffering, they ultimately were hurting the film. He promised to keep the situation under control. I was still naïve enough to believe that he would help the film by making sure Brittany was prepared.
On our schedule the following week was the fashion show and that was when the film’s producer Lawrence Perlman arrived. He was to be a first row extra. We had secured a very large space with plenty of room to build a stage and a walkway as well as the biggest Atlas crane to make the most of the expanse. Inspired by Chanel, I had asked for a series of multiple mirrors on the stage and liked the results. And my costume supervisor pulled off a miracle with the clothes and all the accoutrements and secrets of a great stylist. The difficulty had been to make the fashion believable and she had done so a thousand times over.
My personal challenge at this point was physical. I became sick on the very first day of the shoot. The pressure of it all, and the very cold weather, had gotten the best of me. By the third day, I was barely conscious. Between takes, I wrapped myself in blankets, doped myself with flu medicine, drank a lot of hot liquid and prayed that lighting would take a little longer before I had to spring back into action.