A legendary songwriter’s assistant is determined not to make the same mistakes twice. 2,668 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Throughout dinner I listened to the veteran songwriters discuss their craft. They had both written hit songs for the Troubadours. They described composing straight from the heart and then handing the songs to one of the most famous bands of all time who imbued them with their signature style. The songwriters would struggle when performing their songs in public. They wanted to perform their music as they had written them but the audience, naturally, would want to hear the songs as they had come to know them through the Troubadours.
I was fascinated by the conversation, feeling like a fly on the wall of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, when a distracting image crossed into my peripheral vision. Reflected in an oversized mirror on the wall across from our restaurant table was my ex-boyfriend Leo Sing, hand-in-hand with his new working actress girlfriend. They were walking toward a table.
Gaping, I watched them join Leo’s agent, his manager and his assistant — his usual entourage.
Leo was a half-baked film and TV screenwriter who had used his exotic looks, charmed breeding and Cambridge elitism to finagle his way into the entertainment biz. He surrounded himself with power players and fit right in very successfully — even though, in my humble opinion, his talent was somewhat lacking .
Our first date had started and ended at Leo’s gorgeous home way up in the Hollywood Hills after an evening of fine wining, dining and martinis. Leo had laid eyes on me at a party six months prior and decided without reservation that I was the next Monopoly property he would acquire. When he invited me to go out with him, it hadn’t occurred to me that a lady deserved to be fetched from her apartment as opposed to be beckoned to a gentleman’s home. When I saw Leo’s house and his view of the twinkling city lights, it became clear that he was making sure I knew how lavishly he lived. After dinner, Leo chivalrously held my hair away from my face while I puked in his porcelain toilet. He carried me to his bed, coaxed my knees apart and proceeded to have sex with me although I had protested. I slurred “no” repeatedly while slipping in and out of blackout. I was even wearing my “there-is-no-way-I’m-having-sex-tonight underwear” but that hadn’t seemed to bother him. The next morning I was mortified, but I could only blame myself. Of course it had been my fault. I was sloppy. He was fancy.
The young assistant reluctantly grows closer to the veteran songwriter mentoring her. 1,697 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Unspoken words screamed between us when I picked up Jake curbside at Burbank airport after his trip up north. I had never responded to his evocative email and It hung heavily in the air. We had a quick sushi meal, then he commanded me to drop him at his Hollywood bungalow without saying much at all. There was no communication over the weekend or on Monday. I worried that my lack of openness had pushed Jake away. Did I blow my shot with him? What about my job? It made me want both more.
Tuesday morning I held my breath until around eleven when Jake finally called. I jumped for the ringing phone.
“Hello?” I tried not to sound eager.
“How about you pick me up for lunch and then we get on with what we do?”
“Yes, I’ll be there by noon.” I sighed relief.
We resumed our usual songwriter/assistant deeds as our work week got rolling. There was an acute sexual tension inherent to our escapades. We had a blast running errands and laughing. Halfway through the day, Jake took the wheel and drove my car toward the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art. A new Modigliani exhibit had opened and Jake had added it to our work agenda.
“Now I know one of a songwriter assistant’s duties is to take field trips to museums,” I teased as Jake parked. “I’m learning as we go.”
Rule #2 for showbiz assistants: don’t bed a stranger instead of the man you love. 1,927 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I walked into my apartment like a zombie.
I knelt on the floor of my bedroom. Stared at the wall. The SoCal summer sun sank outside my window. I watched shadows shift. Jake would not leave my mind or my body. He had taken over.
I had not managed the effort to switch on the light. Now shadows faded into darkness. My thoughts crashed. My power of denial faded. I absolutely loved him and I hated myself for it. I hated him for it, too.
“Why, why, why?” I asked the empty room.
I dropped my head into my hands. The moment solidified. I was head-over-heels in love with Jake Easton — a songwriter older than my father would be had he lived — and my resistance was circling the shower drain as I let the water run. I pulled myself up, out of paralysis, and dressed. I fetched my purse, walked to my car in a daze and drove the two blocks to The Brentwood, my local Regal Beagle.
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.
He was a star in Japan. She was renowned in Germany. Could they film together? 1,531 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The flight from Tokyo to Dusseldorf was seriously late. The airport lay in near silent darkness. The Japanese film actor-director-dancer swooped down the ramp, burst from the gate, approached the lone 24-hour car rental counter and demanded a Mercedes. “Black as a june bug on a moonless summer night. With a motor built for elephants,” he told the sleepy blonde rental clerk from a memorized script. The only word she’d understood, aside from “Mercedes,” was “black.” He slammed the desk with the palm of his hand. He wasn’t quite as menacing as his on-screen persona. He just didn’t like to waste time.
He smoked abstractedly while the car rental agent tapped at her computer. His sunglasses gleamed like the sedan he would soon drive down a deserted stretch of Autobahn. Lost in thought, the movie helmer punched all the wrong buttons on the Blaupunkt radio and heard Kraftwerk interspersed crazily with John Coltrane and the Charlie Haden Quartet as the solemn automobile rolled past martial rows of tall pines over impeccable asphalt.
He had no idea what the German town of Wuppertal looked like, didn’t know such a thing as a Schwebebahn existed, and didn’t care. He’d flown over half the world to meet a lady.
In Japan, he was a living treasure. In Germany, Pina Bausch was more of a hidden pleasure. Her admirers were fewer but no less rabid. He was among the most fervent. Enraptured by her dance moves, he wanted to capture them in his film.
She wants to make it in showbiz. But not by temping for the powers-that-be. 3,386 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I sit at a desk in a poolside cabana at a fairytale Spanish style estate in Bel Air. Platinum record plaques litter the walls, bragging. This cabana is the home office of the assistant to veteran record producer Matthew Vaughn. I am an undercover rock star (like Hannah Montana, only a little longer in the tooth) or so I’d like to believe, but I’m dripping with passionate stage fright. If only I could get on that stage. I could be somebody. Meanwhile, I’m a temporary assistant to the powers-that-be in the entertainment industry, while I “develop my writing and artistry.” That’s my pitch, but it’s getting old. My life is a dichotomy. A nightmarish fantasy. A fantastic nightmare.
This is the second consecutive Monday I am on this particular assignment — a two-day gig that terminates at 6:30 pm. It’s 11:23 am. I wonder what will come out if I write all day as a way to pass the hours. Oh, the hours. Springtime sun rays filter through lush tree foliage over the Spanish tile pool, through French doors, across the desk and glare off my laptop screen. It’s pretty. This place would be heaven if only it were mine. If only I were more than a temporary assistant living a temporary life.
I have been assisting entertainment types for twelve years now. I’ve also written a novel, multiple TV pilots, a feature, endless songs. I’ve come close to success. I’ve tasted it. But it’s never more than a taste on the tip of my tongue. None of my dreams have come true and the only bankable skill I have developed since college is the skill of assisting the powers-that-be in Hollywood. I know how to get them exactly what they want, no matter how ridiculous or seemingly impossible, on the triple. It’s a skill I’ve honed to near perfection, one many people around the world might think they would kill for. But it isn’t feeding my soul anymore.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: After a movie studio’s big awards night, the new boss plans changes. 1,442 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
TO: All Employees of Persistent Pictures
FROM: Bradford “Buddy” Newborn, President
RE: Studio Philosophy and Production Slate
We’re all proud of the eight Oscars that Persistent Pictures won last night under Bob Cutner’s management. We hope he gets to use his taste and leadership at another company now that he’s suddenly moved on to make way for me.
Since arriving to head the studio, I’ve seen many of you in the hallways, in the valet parking lot, and as I walk through the commissary on the way to my private dining room. But this is the first chance I’ve had to introduce myself since my father, Bradford Newborn Sr., bought the studio.
To quell some of the rumors and wisecracks I’ve been hearing through our advanced monitoring system, I am well aware that moviemaking isn’t anything like the strappy sandal business. It just so happens that shoes are only one of the many manufacturing interests of Newborn International. We also make small home appliances (“Nothing larger than a toaster oven” is our motto), breath mints and lacrosse equipment. We also had a major investment in the Miami Majors, an ice hockey franchise that I was in charge of running until it folded last year. Let me speak frankly: the Majors died because of poor public support, not because of that lawsuit from 12-year-old Jimmy Brewin after a puck got sucked up into the Zamboni and shot out into the stands, taking with it half his face.
I can report that Little Jimmy is doing well, all things considered, and loves his new nose, mouth and mansion.
Now, for studio business.
Are humans hard-wired to gather in mourning for Hollywood celebrities? 1,848 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
June 25th is my birthday. Most years. Not this year. This year it’s 2009 and the day Michael died. And Farrah. And it makes me very sad. If you looked at me, you’d probably figure why would a white, divorced, middle-aged accountant — okay, unemployed accountant — give a shit? You’d think I’d have more important things to be sad about. Like the fact that I’m unemployed. Or that I’m middle-aged and fat. Moonwalk? Hell, sometimes just plain walking normally gives me shooting pains in my left arm.
I should be sad that I live in a crappy apartment in Hollywood, the part where the glam is insane homeless men and drug-addled whores. Or that my ex took my kids to Ohio. Or that she did it because I lost my job. In other words, she did it just to be a bitch. Was it my fault that all of a sudden I couldn’t make good money being an accountant? That’s my skill. I didn’t complain that she didn’t make good money being a bitch.
Anyway, let’s not go there now. Lots of nights, I sit around drinking cheap scotch being sad about that. Not this afternoon. This afternoon, I’m sitting around drinking cheap scotch being sad that Michael’s dead. And Farrah.
So why do I give a shit? Because Michael and I were close. We were bros. Not that I ever met him. We probably didn’t have many values in common. Fill in your own pedophile joke here. But we did sorta have stuff in common. We’re the same age. Well, I’m two months older. And I’ve outlasted him. I never thought that would happen. I mean, I never really thought about it at all. But he was a rich singer-dancer -actor who breathed purified air, and I’m a fat accountant who recently began drinking too much cheap scotch. Just since my kids left.
A young actress works for a studio executive on matters more thrilling than movie roles. 2,521 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – February 1938
Inside the gates of Hollywood’s grandest studio, which specifically wasn’t in Hollywood at all but in Culver City, a young woman sat waiting inside the executive suite of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer outside the office of Finbar Gregory, Vice President of Studio Relations. That part, Studio Relations, made her smile. Because he was much more than his benign title would suggest. A former sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, he was also the son of an LAPD police captain and had joined MGM in the late twenties as head of security for the studio. He had become the right arm or, more to the point, strong arm of MGM’s Vice President and General Manager Eddie Mannix. Mr. Gregory handled a number of delicate press and publicity issues for the studio. Rumor had it that he and Mannix never exchanged memos but met behind closed doors every morning at seven.
The young woman whose name was Rita Lake looked around the ante room and at Mr. Gregory’s secretary, Marge or Midge or something like that, and wondered if the older woman with light gray hair and a small and efficiently build, thought she was having an affair with the executive. After all, Rita had been to his office several times over the past months and since he had little to do with casting, her presence on so many occasions might be misconstrued as inappropriate.
Rita Lake wasn’t her real name; she was an actress beautiful in an unconventional way with exotic good looks that came from her father, a Russian Jew, and her mother, a Spanish beauty. She had large hazel eyes framed by neatly arched eyebrows, and thick auburn hair recently cut to the new fashion. She had a trim figure, more athletic than voluptuous, and good legs that helped her get more parts than her acting skills.
On this particular morning Rita was dressed in a brown wool suit with a matching handbag and low-heeled shoes, the hem length of her skirt set appropriately at the knee. Rita wondered if it was her wool suit in the mild dry weather or the glacial stares that Marge/Midge was shooting her that was making her perspire. She self-consciously touched the small bruise under her left eye. The swelling had gone down and she hoped that the small amount of make-up she was wearing had been sufficient to cover the black and blue mark.
The douchey showrunner of a dumb YA series turns up the heat on his writers room. 2,105 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
My agent Chad tells me it’s a good idea to staff on a show, just to keep my name out there. I tell him I’m a big fan of Veep and GOT and Transparent and he says there’s a staff writer opening on WitcheZ. I’ve never seen WitcheZ, it isn’t the kind of show I watch – teen witches and warlocks who fight each other, and have sex. A lot of hot sweaty witch-y sex. Not exactly in my wheelhouse.
“It’ll show your range,” Chad says.
WitcheZ is in its second year. It did okay the first season – medium ratings and terrible reviews, but has a strong social media presence that keeps the network happy. “They’re rebuilding the staff,” Chad tells me and I ask my friend Suze who I met on Melancholy, my first TV job, to translate. She says “rebuilding the staff” is usually a euphemism for a creator/showrunner being a paranoid control freak asshole who fired everybody. She doesn’t know this guy, Scott Buckley, but she’ll check him out.
“Takes lithium. Had a big coke habit a couple years ago,” she reports back. “Resents the fact he’s writing a shitty YA show and thinks he should be on cable winning Emmys. Once mentioned The Crucible to a reporter and said Arthur Miller was a hack who at least got to bone Marilyn Monroe. Likes being boss. Makes writers come into the office every day. No writing at home because he likes an audience.” Suze pauses. “Oh, and he plays the guitar.”
TV FICTION PACKAGE: A veteran producer learns from one of his teen contestants. 2,442 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
People have a lot of questions for me lately. How did I come to fire the most powerful law firm in Hollywood? Tear up the contract that governs how most reality competition shows do business? Lose the potential breakout star of my TV singer-songwriter contest Troubador?
The last one is the easiest to explain: Why didn’t I sue Brady James when he gave me and my series the finger and walked away?
He didn’t have a contract.
It started with me watching Crystal Bowersox on season nine of American Idol and thinking — that girl writes her own songs so let’s hear some of them. The idea took shape with Phil Phillips and this latest kid Mackenzie Bourg. I quickly realized a new show could put everything I loved together in one package. I love music. I love songwriters. And as I’ve proved during a thirty-year career working with all four networks and a couple of cable newbies, I love TV. So why not air a performance contest for singer-songwriters? Forget LaPortia Renae standing up there in the laser show belting out some old Mary J. Blige number. My vision was 1974’s Joni Mitchell standing up with a guitar, no light show or pyrotechnics, and simply singing Big Yellow Taxi. Or Bob Marley performing No Woman No Cry for the first time on my stage. Or – why not, shoot for the stars, Danny! – Bob Dylan, scruffy and unknown, knocking the world on its ass with Mr. Tambourine Man. You’re telling me the world ran out of Joni Mitchells and Bob Marleys and Bob Dylans? Seriously?
Then check out Brady James. I knew he was the genuine article at the first Troubadour audition. And it was a big relief, let me tell you.