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.
“No. You’re going to be Simon Bernstein, my new head of research. I fired Jacqueline, but don’t tell them that. You’re going to say that our extensive market research indicates that the best way to protect our investment is to pull the finishing funds that our company is planning on investing in the production. Which will result in even worse special effects than the ones that prompted Paul’s initial outburst on set.”
“We invested finishing funds in the movie?” I ask Arielle,
“Are you calling me a liar?” she responds. I stay silent. “Yes. My company Castleview Pictures invested finishing funds in the movie.” I don’t believe her. But at this moment, it doesn’t matter. I’m over the moon. I’m about to go into a meeting with one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and one of the biggest directors in the world, and the heads of one of the major studios in the world, even if it means giving them a fake name and a fake title.
“Just say that we’re pulling the money unless Paul returns to the set by end of week. Let the others take it from there.”
I drove out to LA a week after graduating from college. I wanted to be a producer, maybe a manager. Really, I just wanted to be in ‘the business’. My favorite books were What Makes Sammy Run and Beautiful Ruins. Since August, I have been gainfully employed as assistant to Associate Producer Arielle Castle. She has 29 film credits. Almost a feature a year for three decades. But since I’ve been working for her, nothing I do has been about movies. She works from home, which means that a good 75% of my job is cleaning up after her pets. When I’m not doing that, I gather information on people involved in movies. Where their kids go to school, if their nannies are illegal. Arielle pays good money to anyone willing to share this info with me.
At her demand, I’m learning everything I can about Paul’s car — a Ferrari LaFerrari which costs $1.5 million because fewer than 500 are in existence. I pretend to be a slew of female staff members: Tiffany, Cara, Kimberly, Ashley, Heather, and Jacqueline even though I’m Arielle’s only employee. However, in the world of the Internet, her office is buzzing with feminine underlings.
I’m pretty sure Arielle is a pathological liar, and I’m starting to have a hard time separating fact from fiction.
Other Sidez is the sixth movie in The Other Side Of The Law franchise starring Paul and MC History – the rapper, turned actor, turned TV cop, turned production company mogul. Arielle works closely with Mickey Spatino, MC’s manager who brought Arielle onto Other Sidez. I’m still not sure what an ‘Associate Producer’ does after two months of observing Arielle.
Did I mention that, because of her, I have learned a lot about the Jack of Spades? Arielle says Jacks are creative, driven, intelligent — and willing to bend the truth to get the job done. Success is more important to them than morality. One-eyed Jacks make great assistants. So the job definiteIy has its downsides, but I’m holding out hope that things will get better. Xander, one of Arielle’s former assistants, received an Associate Producer credit on one of her movies. If I just play through the pain, I’ll find great opportunities on the other end.
I worry the kid will be too star-struck, but what does it matter at this point? Mickey and Sharon both know the score.
We park in a dusty lot about a quarter mile from the set. I hand him a binder full of the same nonsense — charts, graphs, and numbers — I recycle whenever I need them and send him on his way.
Paul is parked on the generic backlot Mainstreet USA ‘to keep the dust off.’ It takes me seven minutes to walk there, where a hundred Westerns have been filmed. Paul’s $1.5 million monstrosity is the only thing out of place. Not another car in sight.
It’s not a difficult job. In a shocking turn of events, the LaFerrari doesn’t require any micro-chipped key. I match the money Paul is paying to the guys at the shop to service his car. All they have to do is send me the service reports. And I make sure can trust Jorge before I ask him to make a key.
I slip the key into the door of the LaFerrari. The alarm goes off. Instead of a normal car alarm, it sounds like a woman screaming bloody murder. I quickly turn the key in the ignition to silence the bitch. Scott scored maps from every location manager on the ranch. The closest production is a quarter mile away. They will just figure it’s a sound from another shoot if they hear anything.
I cut the engine and pop the hood. It’s not complicated work. Fuel lines puncture in high-speed crashes. So do tires. Especially on winding canyon roads. The only thing about the job that worries me is the moon void. It’s been proven ominous time and again – in history as well as in my own life.
The last time I did a job under a moon void, I lost Xander.
I take out a needle and poke one tiny hole in the fuel line. From my case, I remove a surgical drill with a tiny diamond bit usually intended for brain surgery. I also use it to puncture the back tires ever so slightly. Then I walk back to my car and wait with the A/C turned on full blast. I check in on the kids from the iPhone app that connects to the baby monitors I have set up. There are cameras, microphones, and speakers in every room of my house. Even if I can’t be there physically for my pets, my eyes, ears, and voice are.
The meeting is in a large tent at Base Camp – the staging grounds of the Other Sidez film set. It’s where trailers and equipment trucks are parked, stars get their makeup done, the crew eats, and everyone reports to work at their call time. Burly men off-load dolly track, apple boxes, c-stands, and other pieces of equipment I can’t name. Extras in baggy cholo outfits and skinny-suited Triad costumes stand around on a smoke break. Production assistants speak into walkie-talkies: ‘Anyone have eyes on number one?’ / ‘He’s ten-one right now.’ / ‘Copy that.’ / ‘We need lockdown in ten minutes.’. A lone stuntman practices getting punched over and over. Call sheets and quarter-page sized script sides litter the dusty ground. It’s my first real film set.
But I’m not here for the set; I’m here for the meeting.
I walk into the tent and am immediately hit by the smell of beef fat, grilled onions, and beans. The caterers are setting up lunch, as the executives shuffle in and fan themselves with file folders to get relief from the punishing heat. I count four suits: two men and two women. I peg at least one of them as an assistant. I recognize another from her picture on Deadline Hollywood: Sharon Kensal, the president of the studio. She’s shorter than I expect – thin and still pretty for mid-50s.
I’m not sure if I should introduce myself. I don’t know whether to shake hands or where to stand. So I take out my iPhone and stare at it.
“Goddamnit, Sharon, you look better every time I see you. What do you say we bang it out in the trailer just for old time’s sake?”
I recognize the voice of Mickey Spatino who is Arielle’s closest ally in the business. He and Sharon hug. Mickey is wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a linen shirt unbuttoned nearly to his navel, showing off his chest hair and a gold chain with the Hebrew letters chet and yod which mean Life. Raised Catholic on Long Island, he converted when he married a Persian Jew at the beginning of his career. The Judaism stuck, the wife didn’t.
Mickey whispers in Sharon’s ear. Then, to my surprise, they both look directly at me. Mickey beckons me over and throws an arm around my shoulder, “This is the wunderkind I was telling you about.” He pronounces it ‘voon-der-keend’.
“I’m Scott—“ Fuck. I was supposed to introduce myself as Simon Bernstein. Too late now. “West.” Mickey stares daggers at me. I try to recover, “I’m the new head of research for Castleview.”
Just then, Paul Samuels walks in with his team – two agents, a manager, and a lawyer. They all speak to one another quietly, and sit at the opposite end of the table from the studio suits. Paul is talking on his cell phone. “Oh man. Fucking priceless. She didn’t say that!? Alright, gotta roll. I have to do this meeting.”
He then addresses the room. “I’m on time. Where’s Gary?”
Mickey rolls his eyes and doesn’t address Paul. But Sharon crosses the divide. “Thanks for coming, Paul. We really appreciate it. I hope we can get this all sorted out.” They shake hands. Then Paul goes back to conversing with his team, while Sharon talks in hushed tones to her execs.
I wonder where I should sit.
Mickey grips my shoulder and leads me to the seat next to him. I can smell his expensive cologne and cheap mouthwash. A faint odor of weed clings to his clothes. “Alright, so you fucked up the name thing. Just do the rest exactly like Arielle told you to.”
We wait another twenty minutes for the meeting to start. An Assistant Director comes in to say Gary is running behind schedule and has to finish this setup before he can come by. The studio brass nod, but Paul Samuels rolls his eyes.
After another fifteen minutes, MC History strolls in. Paul grins widely and bellows, “My man, Cam!” The two hug, and MC asks, “You alright? Everything okay?” Paul nods gravely, and MC slaps him on the back. Then he introduces himself to everybody as if we didn’t all already know. When he gets to Mickey, he grunts, “This muthafucka,” before cracking up and embracing him so forcefully that he lifts Mickey off the ground. I get the generic handshake.
MC is all smiles and professionalism around Sharon. “Thanks so much for doing this,” he says to her. “I sincerely apologize for any trouble our little movie has caused the studio.”
“And thank you. When the movie wraps, I’d like to continue our discussion about your TV series,” Sharon responds.
And with that, MC leaves.
We wait another five minutes for Gary. He’s a white guy in his 40s, heavily tattooed and wearing a lot of jewelry – leather wristbands, Eastern-looking necklaces, a couple piercings in each ear. He started his career as a music video director in the early 90s. His first feature was California Sunshine, a mid-budget psychological thriller starring Jared Leto as an ex-cop turned cult leader. It flopped at the box office but became a cult classic (no pun intended) on DVD. And by the mid-2000s, Gary has his pick of any film. He has a reputation for being hard on actors and for making outside-the-box stylistic decisions often deemed bizarre – especially on The Other Side Of The Law franchise. The result is a contentious relationship with Paul, which is why we are all here.
“Sorry I’m late,” Gary apologizes. “We have twenty minutes between set-ups. Is this going to take longer than that?”
The purpose of the meeting is to mediate the dispute between Paul and Gary, but the two barely even look at each other. Each suit at the table takes turns speechifying. In a nutshell, they believe in the franchise and want it to continue with Gary behind the monitors and Paul on the call sheet. Luckily, most of Paul’s essential coverage has been shot. But there are still contracts in place. No one should throw away their careers over a difference in personalities. Sure, there’s money involved, but relationships are the most important currency in this town. Blah, Blah, Blah.
Eventually, it’s my turn. Gary’s talking to his Director of Photography about the next setup. Paul’s texting on his cell. I try to stop my hands from shaking as I open the binder Arielle gave me. “I’m the head of Research for Castleview Pictures. We came on late in this process. We invested the finishing funds.”
Suddenly, I have Gary’s undivided attention. Mickey is looking at me, too, nodding encouragingly. “Based on our market research, this public feud is bad for our investment. I’m sorry to tell you, Mr. Samuels, but if you don’t return to the set by the end of the week, we’re going to have to pull our investment.”
Paul snorts. Gary’s eyes bug out. Sharon addresses him, ‘This means that if Paul decides not to come back to work, you have to stick to the budget we originally agreed upon.”
“You can’t be serious,” Gary says, sounding desperate. “We’re already over. How are we going to post at all without the finishing funds?” Sharon simply shrugs.
Then Paul speaks to me, “Are your finishing funds going to cover up the crap we already shot?” I don’t know how to respond.
Mickey comes to my rescue, “I brought Castleview on board, Paul. I knew Gary would need the extra money, but they’re not here to make creative decisions. They’re merely an investor.”
Paul is suspicious. “So Spatino found the dough for the finishing funds. Which means you won’t even show my face in this film. You’re going to hold on MC’s close-up for half of every goddamn scene and only show me in the master.”
Sharon answers. “Paul, we went over and over cut approval when we negotiated your contract two movies ago. You didn’t get it then, and you still don’t get it now.”
“Then fuck it. I’m done here.” And with that, Paul gets up and leaves.
Mickey stands and says to the room, “I’m sorry we couldn’t make it work. Hopefully, we can sort this out before the next movie.”
Gary looks at me, panicked, “Wait a minute, is this decision final? What if Castleview comes to my editing room later in the month? I promise, if you see what we are doing, you’ll change your mind.”
I had no idea how to respond to the director of the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time begging me for money.
Mickey to the rescue. Again.
“Gary, I already tried. I want this to work, too. I’ve had a hundred conversations with Castleview. They’re not budging. Either Paul comes back to the set, or no finishing funds. I’m sorry.”
Gary looks at Sharon. “Then take the finishing funds out of my fee. I’ll have my agent call you.” And with that, he returns to his set.
Mickey leads me out of the tent. “Arielle is gonna lose her mind when she finds out that you gave your real name. But you did good, kid. Thanks.”
He used his real name, Like he thinks he’s been here long enough to even have a name, I tell him.
“I guess not.”
“You guess right.” We drive in silence the rest of the way back to my house. Then I send him home early. Like a punishment.
I call my Mom and tell her all about the meeting. I leave out Arielle telling me to lie. My Mom sounds proud, but also a little confused. I also leave out the part about Arielle sending me home early. I want to show my Mom that I’m doing well.
While I’m talking to my Mom, I hear a beep. Call waiting. It’s Arielle. She’s crying. “What’s wrong?”
“Paul Samuels is dead. He crashed his Ferrari. On the way home from the meeting.” I am not as surprised as I should be.
And, then, for some reason, this comes out of my mouth: “Are we still going to pull the finishing funds?”
Arielle pauses. Her tears stop. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Then she laughs for the second time that day, “You really are a sociopath, aren’t you? A Jack of Spades.”
“Sorry. I was inappropriate.”
“No. It was smart. We’re not going to pull the finishing funds anymore. We never were. There are no finishing funds. Sharon just wanted Gary to feel the heat. We did her a favor.”
Finally, Arielle tells me something about how the movie business really works. And admits to a lie, and explains why she did it.
There’s a pause in the call. I think about the cherry red carbon fiber body of Paul Samuels’s LaFerrari – now twisted, charred black, and dulled by flame. I also think about all the time I put into learning everything about the car and telling Arielle.
“You know, he wanted to use that car in the movie,” she says. “That’s what started his fight with Gary. That’s why you did all that research. I needed to figure out the studio’s insurance on it.” I believe her. “I hate to say it, but it’s a good thing we didn’t let him use it, or he might not have been the only one who died,” she adds.
“Thank God,” I answer, insincerely.