A screenwriter working on a lousy script suddenly finds a brilliant one on his computer. 2,806 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
It was bad enough when the gardener ripped out the hydrangeas he had planted, at $295 a pop, making his house look like collateral damage from an air strike. And when his lawyer stopped defending him from lawsuits and started suing him instead for fees and 18% annual interest. And when his endodontist refused to look at his throbbing left rear molar, let alone write him a script for Percodan… But when his ex-wife didn’t even bother auditing his 1040 because she knew that there was no more loose change to shake out of his pockets, it was time to take a serious look at his prospects.
Which was what Bernard Berry was doing at 3:30 p.m. in the poolhouse of his mortgaged-to-the-hilt home in a neighborhood that realtors referred to, charitably, as Beverly Hills Adjacent-Adjacent. Since noon he had been trying to write an action sequence for a screenplay he had been pecking at for months. He was convinced this script, a highly derivative story that he had artfully borrowed from a hit buddy action thriller, was his last best shot at pulling himself out of the morass of debt and depression he had been in for the last year and counting.
Somehow he would finish this script, convince one of the aging Young Turks at the agency that no longer represented him nor even took his phone calls without being badgered, to read it and sell it for serious change. Then pay off his debts, replant his hydrangeas, get a root canal and reboard the gravy train he had been on before things starting going south.
His psychopharmacologist — who was among the litigants to whom he owed money and who would not renew his Zoloft even when Bernard reasoned that if he stopped being depressed he could write better and therefore earn enough money to pay his tab — said that he was suffering from a major trough in his self-esteem, caused by crevices in his chain of cognitive defensive mechanisms.
You couldn’t take that to the bank. Nor any of his past accomplishments as a well-paid B-plus list screenwriter who had made enough money over the years to have had a wife venal enough to take him to the cleaners and a lawyer who charged $750 an hour to keep him afloat. The shelf life of personal accomplishment in this town was short.
So either he finished the screenplay or moved into a homeless shelter when the bank took what was left of the house. This thought made him queasy. Either that or the tuna fish that he had been living on recently. He slouched over to the lumpy couch, turned on Ellen and spent three minutes listening to recovering sexaholic celebrities before falling asleep.
It was dark when Bernard awoke on the couch. Stiff from the chill, he got up, went into the house for a pee and a cup of instant coffee, then returned to his computer. On the screen, below the last line he had written — “Lance opens fire with the AK47, spraying hot lead at the armored Ferrari with the vanity plate ALPHAMALE” — were two words. NEED HELP?
Jesus! Had he written this subconscious cry for help before he nodded out? Or had someone snuck into the poolhouse while he was sleeping and read the script? The only people who had keys to the side gate were his estranged gardener and his poolman, a charbroiled young slacker who came — if he still did — on Tuesdays; and today, to the best of his recollection, was Saturday.
The words were written in ALLCAP, which wasn’t Bernard’s style. People who wrote in ALLCAP sent group emails about discount erectile dysfunction medication. And why would he have written those words? Although Bernard was not above much these days, he considered himself above self pity.
He pressed delete and stared at the screen for a long time trying to decide where the sprayed bullets hit the Ferrari and what their effect would be, if any. Undecided, he went into the kitchen, opened another can of tuna, dished the last bit of mayonnaise into a bowl and had dinner. Tomorrow he’d be reduced to tuna straight up. He hoped tomorrow things would be better.
They weren’t. He woke to a damp cool February morning, rain in the air. As he spooned some Maxwell House Instant into a dirty cup and ran lukewarm water from the tap, he thought of the screenplay that was lying bleeding to death in his computer memory. He no longer really understood the plot, simple and derivative as it was, and he didn’t have the heart to reread the 49 pages he had written because every time he did he felt worse.
Coffee in hand, he wandered out to the poolhouse, still in his bathrobe. As soon as he sat down and hit a key, he saw that he hadn’t turned off the computer last night. The screen was illuminated with his script. But it wasn’t stuck on page 49, as it had been. Instead it was on page 54. And at the bottom on the last page was written, WHAT DO YOU THINK?
He scrolled back quickly and saw that there were five new pages. He read them in a fury. The Ferrari’s gas tank was penetrated by incendiary bullets, causing it to burst into a spectacular ball of flame before skidding into a drainage ditch. The two guys inside made a miraculous escape through the burning windows, smashing through the balls of flame and coming up firing. What followed was a bloody, gripping and meticulously-described gunfight that killed off the undercover cop who had infiltrated the drug cartel.
Bernard looked up from the screen, expecting to remember that he had sleepwalked into the poolhouse and written the pages himself. Or to see his poolman walk in and claim these pages. Or to discover his computer infiltrated by aliens. Why not? The way things were going lately, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
Finishing the coffee, he felt the surge of caffeine rise in his clogging arteries and remembered that he and another writer had co-written a script using a file sharing program. But that was at least two years ago. The guy, Larry Janov, died last summer of a brain aneurism. Bernard had skipped the funeral.
Somewhere in his phonebook was a number for a computer geek, an Iranian immigrant who made house calls. Bernard dialed it and explained what had happened. Ron Zarmesh said that it was undoubtedly some sort of Spyware picked up off the Internet. He could come take a look at it but his first available appointment was on Tuesday.
“Couldn’t you come tomorrow?”
“I am at Sony all day. They have network problems. But stay off your computer until I get there.”
Bernard sat at his desk, wondering what to do until Tuesday. Maybe benign aliens with writing talent were just what he needed in his life right now. What did he have to lose? If the aliens spoke ALLCAP, he’d communicate with them in ALLCAP. So he went back to the computer and typed the words “GREAT. CAN YOU DO MORE?” Then he went out for a walk. An hour later, he returned and found the words "YOU BET” typed under his own.
Bernard typed “GO AHEAD. MAKE MY DAY” and walked out of the poolhouse like Clint Eastwood, his back to a killer, closing the door behind him.
At nine the next morning he found 120 pages printed out on his Hewlett Packard Laserjet 300. Bernard read them straight through, riveted. Not only was the ending clever, but the aliens had gone back and fixed the 49 pages that Bernard had already written, trimming the over-expository introduction and making it quick, compelling and seductive.
This baby sung. It was pulsating, vivid, and literate, blessed with the type of witty and self-effacing buddy dialogue Hollywoodliked these days. The plot hole in the second act was plugged up ingeniously; the set piece at the top of the third act was monumental, if not iconic; the ending both gut wrenching and ironic, with just a tinge of blunted optimism. Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.
He scrolled down to Fade Out and typed, “WHO ARE YOU?”
Seconds later these words appeared on the screen: “YOUR FAIRY GODMOTHER.”
He considered the options open to him. He could check himself into Cedars and explain this event to the guys in the white coats with the anti-psychotic meds. He could turn off his computer and wait for the geek to erase the Spyware. Or he could ride this horse as far as it would take him.
He picked up the phone and called the agency that used to represent him. When he was told that his former agent was in a meeting, Bernard said, “Put him on, Nina.”
Nina, the assistant who used to put him through directly, hit the hold button, and a half minute later he heard the raspy voice of Harv Borodin.
“Bernie, I’m just about to go into a meeting.”
“No you’re not, Harv. But let’s move beyond that. I understand you lie for a living. Occupational hazard. Listen closely. I have written a fabulous script. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m going to email it to you and give you till the close of business today to read it. You have to read it yourself. You can’t get it covered by some UCLA English major from the mailroom. Then you’re going to call by 6 PM and tell me that you’re going out with the script all over town. If you do all this in a timely manner, you and the agency will be in for 10 percent of a very lucrative deal. If you don’t, I’m going elsewhere and you’re going to kick yourself in the ass for the rest of your career. You in?”
“Bernie, I got a stack of scripts on my desk.”
“This one goes to the top. Today.”
“We’ve got a staff meeting, and I have a lunch.”
“Skip the staff meeting and blow off your lunch.”
“Do I have your number?”
“Yes. Unless you shredded it.”
He hung up and dialed the geek and canceled Tuesday’s appointment. If this was Spyware, Bernard would live with it.
It may have been a comment on just how well things were going for the aging Young Turk who used to represent Bernard. But Harv Borodin called his ex-client back by 3 p.m. that afternoon.
“It’s not bad, Bernie.”
“Don’t agent me, Harv. It’s not not bad, it’s fabulous.”
“Yeah, but without elements –“
“This script will attract elements. You know that. All you have to do is to get it to you’re a-list directors and then sit back and field the phone calls.”
“You think it’s that easy?”
“I know it’s that easy.”
“Okay, so supposing I get a bite. What do you want for it?”
“Put it out to auction.”
“Bernie, I can’t put a script out to auction from a writer who—“
“Can’t get arrested? Yes, you can. All you have to do is to take my name off the title page. As soon as they buy it, we’ll tell them the truth.”
“Excuse me, Harv. What business are we in?”
There was a long breathy pause over the line. Bernard could hear the agent’s sinuses attempting to filter the accumulated phlegm while doing a rapid cost/benefit computation for sending the script out. “Okay, so we’ll set up a weekend read…”
“No. I want it out by 10 a.m. tomorrow morning.”
“People don’t read during the week.”
“They will. Once you tell them how, if they don’t move fast, it’s going to be off the market.”
Bernard glanced at his computer. On the screen was written $1,500.000.
“Start the auction at a million-five.”
“It’s a floor number. You could get more.”
“Bernie, that’s an outrageous amount of money.”
“For once in your life, be an agent, Harv. Go for the throat.”
Betting on the come, Bernard sucked up the last breath of air from his Master Card and got off the tuna fish. He treated himself to an excellent dinner and bought himself a pair of shoes that didn’t squeak and a faux cashmere sweater at Nordstroms. And he stayed off the computer. He was afraid that his fairy godmother would have new instructions for him, or, worse, come out of the woodwork and demand ownership of the script. Mostly, he avoided thinking about the ethics of the situation.
As he had said to Harv, ethics didn’t apply to the business they were in. It was textbook Darwin these days in Hollywood – eat or be eaten. Whoever was invading his computer had their own motives. Even fairy godmothers had an agenda. He’d burn that bridge when he got over it.
By Wednesday afternoon they had two offers: $750,000 and $900.000. Harv had accessed his inner barracuda and managed to get bids from a couple of players. The agent was beside himself when Bernard told him to hold out for a million-five.
“Are you crazy? They’ll walk away.”
“No, they won’t.”
“Bernie, this is a big pay day.”
“What’s bigger, Harv – ten percent of nine hundred grand or ten percent of a million-five?”
They were over a million by Thursday morning, with both of the previous day’s bidders sweetening their offers. The nine hundred grand offer was at a million-one.
“That’s a big number, “ the agent said.
“They’re four hundred grand short.”
“What about the backend?”
“I’m not planning on living that long.”
By lunch the competing bids were at one point five. Bernard told him to take the one who promised to wire the money quicker.
“What about rewrites?”
“This script doesn’t need rewrites.”
“Bernie, a studio shelling out a million and a half dollars for a script expects work to be done on it.”
“They can do anything they want with it. I’m just not doing it.”
“You know, this was the attitude that caused your career to go in the toilet two years ago.”
“Maybe, but it’s not in the toilet now. And if you’d like someone else to cash the coupons just let me know. And, Harv, if they wire the money today, cut me a check tomorrow. I’d like to have an enjoyable weekend.”
“I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“Excuse me but am I still under contract with you guys?”
“I don’t know. You may have expired…”
“My point exactly.”
If there was one thing that Bernard had learned about the movie business, it was that almost anything could be done if there was sufficient motivation. If they could burn down Atlanta on the backlot, they could move a million and a half dollars from one bank to another in twenty-four hours. He had alerted his own bank that his account — present balance of $119.65 — would be receiving a substantial sum of money by 4 PM on Friday.
The sum arrived, minus commission, at 3:32 p.m. on Friday. Bernard was at the bank, open till 6 p.m. on Fridays, by 4:15, sitting across the desk from an alleged vice president named Katerina Dimnimova. Ms. Dimnimova was from Azerbaijan and spoke English as if she were processing pasteboard between her gums. She kept referring to a cheat sheet on the desk, suggesting various interest-bearing accounts, but Bernard said he wasn’t interested in long term capital accumulation.
He told her to leave the sum in the non-interest-bearing account and wrote a check to himself for $10,000. She stared at it like it was a stink bomb. Bernard was directed to a teller’s window, where he was handed 100 one-hundred-dollar bills. The teller told him to have a nice day. He assured her he would.
By the time he got home that night, laden with groceries, Bernard was exhausted. Spending money was a lot of work. At Whole Foods he dropped a few Franklins, piling the grocery cart so full that two people had to help him load it into his 1996 diesel Mercedes.
Later as he sat in his kitchen, digesting the portobello mushroom risotto in green fennel sauce followed by most of a $19.95 slice of St. Albray lubricated with a very soft barolo, Bernard decided that the best way to deal with his silent partners was to keep them silent. Keep off the computer, bury his tracks, cork the genie in the bottle. Just to be on the safe side, he’d get rid of the bottle.
Saturday bright and early Bernard took another fistful of Franklins and went to Best Buy and bought himself a new computer, software and printer. Then he carried the old one into the garage and smashed it to pieces with his three-iron.