Little has changed in the movie business from three decades ago when nepotism, sexual harassment and racism ran rampant. 3,837 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing.
Hollywood — Fall/Winter 1988
The sign on the door read: CAPITOL PICTURES, OFFICE OF THE CHAIRMAN.
The Chairman, Leo Moody, often joked that when the Board of Directors finally got around to shit-canning him, they’d save money by not having to change a name.
I was sitting in Moody’s outer office, across from his long time assistant Marie Liotta, who was at her desk sorting the morning mail.
From inside Leo’s office we could hear him hollering into the phone.
"He shouldn’t be doing that," Marie said to me.
"Yelling like that. You know he had surgery."
"Vanity surgery. He had his neck done."
I didn’t say anything.
An ex-studio boss tries to cast a crazy music superstar in the first film he’s producing. 3,704 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Ben had been working on Art Manning, hard, for almost a week now.
They had done business together in past, since Manning was a powerful lawyer whose roster of A-list clients could set a deal in motion and often helped close it. He was regarded as a combative litigator, but also as a top-notch negotiator – something not always said about powerful entertainment attorneys.
When Manning came in to negotiate a deal, he never inadvertently killed it. He was not one of those lawyers whose art collections were more celebrated than their legal skills.
Ben knew that many industry lawyers were only too happy to have Manning in on a negotiation. It was one way of assuring that they would get the best possible pay-out for their client – as long as they were on the same side of the table as Manning.
Now Ben needed help for the new independent production company he was starting. He didn’t want to admit it, but he’d been unnerved by his most recent industry party. He had never thought that roughly a third of his guests would leave once he was no longer head of a studio. Was this something he needed to worry about now? Should he prepare for a life of slights? His name falling off an important agent’s call list? Never making it to the top of the queue to buy a Gursky? Ben cut off this line of thought. It was a waste of time. He had built his many relationships over years of doing business. Relationships were what mattered in Hollywood. People would always take his calls.
This picture was a good starting point. It would grab that attention of everyone in town. Over the years, many different directors and producers had tried to set up this script. But it had eluded, even stumped, them all.
Ben was certain that he had the key. Howard would make it work. Ben decided that it was going to take longer than he had planned to assemble a deal. A slog, not a quick march. But he had the skills – and patience – required to win. And winning was all that mattered.
A humongous Hollywood merger has unforeseen consequences for all involved. 2,559 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Margaret Sewell sighed as she sat across from her friend, Lou Delray, at the Fox studio commissary’s outdoor patio. She had little appetite and barely touched her salad. “My boss said, ‘I wish I could take you with me.’ And he didn’t even bother to try and sound sincere. Then he gave me a holiday gift card to Neiman-Marcus. As if that was supposed to make me feel better. ‘Hey, clown,’ I wanted to say, ‘how about a gift card to Ralphs, so’s I can buy some food after I start collecting unemployment in 2018.’”
Lou was only half-listening. He hadn’t filed for unemployment since losing his first job right after college. For the past twenty years he’d been a teamster driver on a succession of studio TV and film projects. The studio facilities would remain and his boss, Henry, claimed Lou had “nothing to worry about.” But when your boss tells you not to worry, that’s precisely the time to start making other plans.
With the departure of the television and movie production units, sooner or later, probably sooner, something was bound to give. And that usually meant the older and more expensive workers.
“They’re saying that, after the merger, ten thousand jobs are going to be lost in all. Screw Murdoch and screw Iger twice,” Margaret said as she threw her salad into the trash. A number of heads turned and nodded, some eyes rolled, and a couple of mouths uttered sarcastic laughs.
Buoyed by the reaction, Margaret added, “I might as well tattoo ‘Roadkill’ on my forehead. Am I right?”
The L.A. therapist is pursued by his first celebrity sex partner. 3,419 words. Part Seven. Illustration by Thomas Warming
Speed west on the 10 freeway and you fast run out of land. Just in time, you whip through the rightward arc of a tunnel that shoots you out onto Pacific Coast Highway, due north. On your left: blue-green water from here to infinity. On your right: the Santa Monica Mountains, parched and immense. Dead ahead: the promontory of Point Dume. Beat lights and traffic — a long shot, at best, in your soon-to-be late-great Camry — and in twenty minutes you’ll turn onto an asphalt ribbon known as Old Malibu Road. It’s where Dennis Corbin, celebrity therapist, is heading to make a house call. A beach house call. Oh, the travails of a country doctor.
“Did I wake you?”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s wrong?”
“So agitated, I’m gonna scream.”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
“Can’t breathe. God, those crashin’ waves. They’re relentless.”
“Where are you?”
The L.A. psychologist is finding fame and fortune from his celebrity patients and their pals. 1,887 words. Part Six. Part Eight. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
After some back and forth, we agree on a price. More than I’d imagined. I will get a flat fee per gossip tip, contingent on its veracity. There’s a time lag while it’s investigated. The money is payable to Alan Shepherd Black, LLC. Cost me $49 to incorporate in Nevada without my name in the filings. How it works: I give Stop The Presses! a lead. They assign the story to a team who tail and photograph the target, interview friends, neighbors, and colleagues. If they go with it, funds are electronically transferred to the LLC. To encourage speedy payment, I decide to withhold new tips till I’m paid for the previous ones.
I do have ethical ground rules. First, I will not divulge anything a client has told me in confidence that relates to his or her psychic pain or treatment. Gay? Alcoholic? Cheating on a spouse? I’ll take your secret to the grave.
Second, the tip can’t be something that only my client knows, thus traceable to him — and by extension, me. No, it must be a thing two or more people know so as to obscure its source.
But this leaves so much else. What do I consider fair use? Idle gossip. Trash talk. Celebrities love to dish about other celebrities. It’s a stall tactic, a digression, to avoid dealing with their own shit. Every day I get an earful. The married actress sleeping with her nanny; the producer nailing his son’s wife; the Beverly Hills dermatologist meth addict; the talk show host sex offender; the transgender Victoria Secret model; the HIV-positive action star; the sex tape starring “America’s Sweetheart.” And more. Lots more. So much loose talk. Hell, I even hear things outside of therapy. Did you know that Hollywood’s biggest entertainment attorney has a whole second family? Kidding. I would never. But you get what I’m saying.
I’m about to test the system.
The Hollywood therapist needs money quickly. A book? TV talk show? Gossip? 2,050 words. Part Five. Part Seven. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“So I made some calls.” It’s my college buddy, entertainment attorney Barry, over the car speaker. We haven’t talked in a few days about my book idea
“And?” I say into the hands-free. Looking around for a place to eat.
“There’s qualified interest — Audrey, will you send this to Frank Matteson for signatures? Then you can go home. Sorry, Dennis.”
“What are the qualifications?”
“You said qualified interest.”
I turn off Venice into a random mini-mall.
“The market is saturated,” he says. I park, facing a crimson neon martini glass: the Hi-Lite Lounge, next to an army surplus. “They’ve got self-help books up the wazoo. And since they’re all the same book, you need a hook…”
“Do I have a hook?” I rummage in the console for an Altoid. Starved.
“A great hook, the Hollywood hook. But you need a title they can promote: Tales Of A Hollywood Shrink… Psychoses Of The Stars… How To Get Laid Like DiCaprio… So they can book you on Ellen and the morning shows.”
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A newbie NYC filmmaker visits L.A. after his documentary is shortlisted. 3,168 words. Art by Thomas Warming.
Rick was making $175,000 annually at a midsize law firm in New York City as a second-year associate with a bright future. He did corporate work and mostly real estate transactions. There wasn’t a lot of law involved, but he had to deal with an ever-changing cast of characters. It was about who had control, who had leverage, who had cash, who had financing. No two deals were alike, and it was Rick’s job to stand up for his clients when others were behaving badly and to smooth out issues when his clients were the ones behaving badly.
The truth was Rick didn’t feel that much commitment to his work. He he felt no personal stake in it. Much of what he did was accumulate files on his desk and make them disappear to somewhere else. What Rick most enjoyed was the process of property development by transforming the most prosaic piece of land or building into something new and different at its highest and best use.
As a second year associate, Rick was required to do a certain amount of pro-bono work (which theoretically meant “for the public good” but actually meant “for the good name of the firm.”) Rick’s contribution was helping his alma mater Columbia Law School raise scholarship funds. A worthy cause and, in the eyes of the firm, a great networking opportunity. For this year’s annual dinner, Rick had the idea to make a short documentary about Supreme Court Justice and Columbia Law grad Benjamin Cardozo.
An aging actor down on his luck is hoping to become a kept man. 2,798 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It came down to the two Ks. Either one would do and Rubi had little preference at this point.
There was Kristen. A soft-spoken, senior partner in the entertainment law firm her deceased husband had founded. The same firm who used to represent Rubi back when he needed dealmakers. Her hair was long and reddish blond.
And then there was Kate. Her hair was short, stylish and black. This trust fund baby was on the board of every museum in Miami. She had swagger, not to mention a five bedroom condo on the 44th floor of Zaha Hadid’s new downtown tower, a palatial home in the Gables, a four bedroom condo at the Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo, and a cabin on a mountainside in North Carolina decorated impeccably in mid-century modern.
Kristen’s big advantage was that she was absent from her penthouse ten hours a day. Her eye-opening terrace overlooked the Port of Miami with its humongous floating buffet boats that moved with the precision of a clock as they docked on Fridays and set sail on Sundays. Rubi could imagine having her place all to himself until she returned from work when they would enjoy a cocktail hour that stretched well past 8 pm. The perfect capper on a day he spent doing nothing but walking Kristen’s annoying little dog before primping for the night. And although Kate was the more attractive of the two, Kristen even though she had just turned 59 was more creative in bed than her slightly younger competition.
A plus in the Kate column was that she could speak four languages when she and Rubi travelled or made love. Who cared if she occasionally objectified the actor as a living work of art? Truth be told, Rubi liked thinking of himself as a possession, a man who could please a woman in a variety of ways, and by any means necessary.
The most difficult task Rubi faced was not confusing the details of his two paramours. His increasingly unreliable memory made him prone to mixing up the names of the significant people in the Ks’ lives, especially their investment bankers, lawyers, ex-husbands, children and grandchildren. Still, one or the other would have to do. Unfortunately, the choice between the two Ks was not Rubi’s to make but it did have to be made soon. He was an ex-soap opera star who’d recently turned 70 and was in desperate need of a woman willing to make him a kept man.
A studio credits czar rules his kingdom unless or until confronted. 1,711 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Sometimes the smallest gestures had the biggest consequences, didn’t they? The pebble to the windshield that eventually cracked the whole thing. The chance meeting at a premiere that neither was supposed to attend. Say if one morning thirty years ago, a development executive at Fox hadn’t argued with his boyfriend before coming into work, Jeffrey Baummann might had sold the script that set him on the path of a successful writer. Or twenty years ago to the liquor store a minute earlier, and Jeffrey would have bought the lottery ticket that won a hundred mil and not the someone who did right in front of hm. Ten years ago if not for a missed red light, Jeffrey might have met a different woman who could have been his wife. That morning, expending not even a calorie, he crossed out a name on a draft of end title credits for one of the studio’s films.
With the flick of a pen, a black line moved a half-inch right and one less dolly grip went into the roll.
Jeffrey was the studio’s credits czar, a nickname from an old boss to make him feel better when she declined his raise. Afterwards, the late head of publicity at that same studio said at a big meeting, "Oh Jeffrey, you’re the poor bastard who has that job." It certainly got a laugh.
This was what he did: prepared the main and end titles for the studio’s films which meant he looked at lists and lists of names, deciding whose would go in. He eliminated many of them with a small gesture. There was no attempt to find the private echo, this one resonating, that one not. He had a template. He filled it in.
EXCLUSIVE: Michael Tolkin debuts the beginning of his novel-in-progress about a veteran executive’s humiliation when he has to start over in Hollywood. 2,974 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Chapter 1 – Out With A Scream
For thirty-five years, I was the right hand man to John Brine Trubb, the legendary producer who would have been immortal if he hadn’t died. I had the privilege of being at the old man’s side when he went out with a scream. It’s the great puzzle of Rosebud that no one was in the room to hear Kane’s last word, but three of us were there to hear the Trubb’s final adios. JBT’s attorney, Redoubtable Maize, always too fancy with his allusions, heard in the old man’s dying expression the horror of Don Giovanni dragged into Hell at the foot of the Commendatore’s statue, agony after defiance. JBT’s special friend Auspicia Renn, his Abishag, said that it was the sound her rather older lover made when he was in ecstasy on Ecstasy. A logical guess, but wrong; from my catbird seat forward of the curtain that hid his day/nite bed on the Gulfstream, I knew too well the shape of the sordid bellow she was able to draw out of him and I can arbitrate the credit for his final yodel; she loses. No, JBT’s death shout was a blend of the old man’s two favorite moments in all of cinema, opening with the start of the cattle drive in Red River, the close ups of cowboys waving their hats in the air, calling Yee-Haw! And blended with the "Yah-hoo!" at the end of Dr. Strangelove, when the great Western actor Slim Pickens rides the nuclear warhead out of the bomb bay, setting off the end of the world. I kept this observation to myself, as JBT would have wanted. “Hum this every morning when you brush your teeth: never share your personal taste,” he used to say to the people he knew in the business, the people who looked up to him. It was a ridiculous mantra, bad advice, meant to send his enemies, which meant all of you, in pursuit of wasting someone else’s money. Pursue failure. That was the message inside the advice however justified by the circumstances. He had plenty of good advice, too, look at what he did, but he never shared it, not even with me.
The funeral service was austere but per his manifesto, surprisingly well catered for a crowd of three hundred or so, although I had no appetite after my first pass at the pastry table, when attorney Redoubtable took me aside. When his first words were, “Look, Martin,” I could have written the rest of what he said, or hired a writer to do it, at scale.
A successful film studio is run with an iron fist. But is that the best strategy for its future? 2,711 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The old man was packing his things in a cardboard box – doing it himself. I just watched.
Jake Simon was going – really going. Hard to believe. After 15 years, 15 years, of one man rule by an angry, unpredictable son of a bitch. You could certainly say that. And you’d be right. But, of course, it was more than that. Much more. Anyway, it was over now – over and done in half an hour.
I remember the day I got here. How could I forget? I’d never been to a studio before – any studio. I’d just published my second novel to mild critical acclaim; and I suppose, to Jake, I was exotic, and I was “hot” – at least hot enough to hire as co-head of feature development.
Why do I remember that particular day? That’s easy. I was replacing a guy named Sid Blumberg, who was being demoted. Sid had gone to Jake and complained that I was an overrated, Ivy League hack. Not nice of him; but, hey, I get it, that’s the business.
Anyway, Jake calls me into his office with Sid still there. Sid stands there looking uncomfortable while Jake repeats what he just said about me. Kind of embarrassing. Then, Jake turns to Sid and says, “I’ve hired this man because he has rare talent – talent we badly need. Unlike you, this man’s an artist.” Then, suddenly, he points at my feet and shouts, “Kiss his shoe!”
The showbiz murder attempts mount as famed P.I. McNulty tries to prevent more. 1,570 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Mandeville Moving Pictures was six weeks into a ten-week shoot on A Whisper In The Dark when the stalker finally made his move on Jade San Vincente, Hollywood’s newest and brightest young star who also happened to be the lead actress in Mitch and Billie Mandeville’s newest movie.
“Quiet, please!” the assistant director called out. “This is picture!”
Everybody was gathered at the far end of the Malibu Pier to film a crucial scene where Jade must wordlessly decide if her character will honor her dementia-stricken mother’s pleas to help her die. As Jade took her place at the rail, her assistant held up a parasol to shade the actress from the bright Malibu sun. After a few quiet words with Jade, the director nodded to the A.D. who then ordered the camera operator to “roll camera!”
All eyes were on Jade as a range of emotions flitted across her face. It was a touching moment and Jade was capturing her character’s anguish beautifully. Then, from the corner of his eye, private detective McNulty caught a flash of movement. Someone on a ten-speed bicycle was hurtling down the pier toward them!
The bike knifed through several crew members, knocking them down, and raced straight for Jade. McNulty saw the rider was holding a plastic drink container in one hand. Moving reflexively, The P.I. grabbed the parasol and stepped in front of Jade just as the rider squeezed out a long stream of hydrochloride acid from the container.
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."
Hollywood P.I. McNulty pieces together the puzzle surrounding the missing TV showrunner. 2,160 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
McNulty was finishing a fourteen-hour day piecing together all the images related to the year-long disappearance of TV showrunner Dana Delongpre. The images from his iPhone. The surveillance video from the convenience store where she’d last been seen. And all the photos posted by CHP Officer and wannabe screenwriter Chet Nichols on his Facebook and Instagram pages expertly hacked courtesy of McNulty’s Nerd Ninja team.
Blurry-eyed from hours of frame by frame studying on his notebook screen, McNulty leaned back in his chair and knocked back the last mouthful of Glenlivet, his mind still sharp and focused. And now he was damn sure he knew what had happened to Dana. And it wasn’t murder at the hands of her husband.
“Wanda!” the Hollywood P.I. barked into the office intercom. “Get me Shamrock!”
‘Shamrock” was the code name for Killian Cleary, a former IRA soldier and roguish Irish mercenary who’d seen action as a private CIA contractor in many of the world’s hotspots. A dead shot and skilled martial arts expert, Killian Cleary was McNulty’s secret go-to guy whenever back-up was needed on an investigation.
“Got one, boyo?” Shamrock laughed, recognizing the number on the burner phone McNulty used exclusively to contact him.
“It could get sticky,” McNulty admitted.
“Where and when?” Shamrock asked.
“Tonight,” McNulty replied. “Bring the beast.” That was another coded reference for Shamrock’s armored Hummer which he’d outfitted with an impressive array of firepower.
The showbiz sleuth follows up on a freeway hunch in search of a missing TV showrunner. 1,965 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
A hundred yards behind where he was parked, McNulty’s camera drone hovered over an area where the 14 freeway crossed over the concrete channel of the California Aqueduct. Suddenly, the Hollywood investigator’s eyes were drawn to something glinting in the sun on the center median. As he dropped the drone lower, he could see the shiny object was glass in a broken plastic shell possibly from a vehicle’s side mirror. There also were red fragments apparently from a tail light. McNulty realized that his hunch was gaining traction.
Directly ahead were two large openings that dropped some twenty feet into the concrete channel below and encircled by guard rails but not completely. For traffic moving north, the protection was on the south end; for traffic moving south, on the north end. The cost-cutting logic being that guard rails were only necessary on the sides facing the oncoming traffic lanes.
“What could possibly go wrong?” McNulty muttered, shaking his head at the stupidity.
As he surveyed the scene, he imagined what might have happened to Dana Delongpre when she suddenly vanished from the face of the earth. He theorized that she’d been driving north in the southbound lanes, lost control of her vehicle, skidded across the median toward the unprotected opening and then plummeted into the watery channel below. It was only a guess, McNulty knew, and he needed something tangible to make it real.
His gut told him it was lying there at his feet.
Hollywood P.I. McNulty is back, hired by a missing TV showrunner’s husband accused of murder. 2,064 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Nearly a year had passed since Dana Delongpre had gone missing. She and her Range Rover had seemingly evaporated into thin air on a dark and lonely stretch of Mojave Desert highway. Now you see her, now you don’t like some spangled magician’s assistant in a Vegas lounge act. But this was no magic trick, nor was it just another routine missing person’s case. This was news. Not just in Hollywood where Dana was the creator of a hit TV series, but throughout the world because, well, she was the creator and showrunner of a hit TV series.
“Dozens of people go missing every day,” McNulty grumbled at the time. “But when there’s a Hollywood connection, the media’s all over it like glitter on a pole dancer.”
As the days blended into weeks, media speculation about Dana’s disappearance ran the gamut from running off with a lover to alien abduction. What was known for sure was that Dana was driving back from a location shoot near Lone Pine, a three-hour drive from L.A., after filming on her series The Paradox Files had gone late and she’d left sometime after eleven p.m. Pings from her cell phone showed her heading south on 395 before taking the southbound Antelope Valley Freeway. She was even picked up on surveillance cameras buying gas and coffee at a convenience store on the outskirts of Palmdale. That was the last time anyone saw her. Authorities quickly launched an intensive week-long ground and air search along the freeway and the intersecting California Aqueduct, but found no trace of Dana or her Range Rover.
Now, as the first anniversary of her disappearance approached, the media was interested in the case once again. Only this time they dug up new information that Dana’s marriage had been a troubled one. She and her husband were on the verge of divorce, and police had responded to at least two domestic violence calls. As a result, what had started out as a tragic missing person was now being looked at as a possible murder investigation. And that made Dana’s talent agent husband the prime suspect.