A struggling writer hopes to start a script for a famed director before their careers flatline. 4,370 words. Illustration by Fates Crew.
After the cheapest available 12-hour two-stop flight from JFK, Paul Slater walked out of the LAX terminal stiff and exhausted. A computer bag slung over his shoulder, he pulled a roll-a-way suitcase and moved towards the curb and the Totaled Car Rental courtesy van.
Paul look older than his 36 years. He was trying to suppress his alternating feelings of anxiety, desperation and fear.
Two days before in Brooklyn, Paul had suffered his first panic attack. His life was coming apart. He was a talented but unsuccessful fiction writer. He had one novel published to a few good reviews yet no sales. He’d had 20 stories published in respected literary magazines. He worked as an adjunct writing instructor at a local community college for very little money. His wife Willa was a proofreader at a law firm. They had a four year old son. They barely scraped by. Bills were piling up, disconnect notices arrived in the mail. Once patient and supportive, Willa had become cranky and critical. Paul didn’t know how to get out of his deepening hole. As he sat in his small apartment, Paul was filled with hopelessness when the phone rang.
“Hey, Paul, how are you? It’s Scott Blake over at Inspired Artists.”
“Scott? It’s been a while.”
“About a year. You didn’t respond to my manuscript or my messages so I assumed you weren’t interested in being my agent anymore.’
“I’ve gotten some movie interest in one of your stories.”
Paul was stunned. “Which one?”
“The one I sold to that glossy fiction magazine that folded. The sci-fi piece.”
“Cratered? That was more a Kafkaesque thriller, about an old lady.”
“Whatever. Somehow our client Roger Edmunds saw it and liked it. And told one of my colleagues in the L.A. office. You know who Roger Edmunds is, right?”
“The director,” Paul remembered. “In the Seventies didn’t he do Nightmares?
“Which grossed like $300 million — back then. He’s got a couple of Oscars. He hasn’t done anything in a while. But he’s looking to make a comeback.”
“Does he want to option my story?” Paul asked.
“He’s being cagey. But I think you should write it.”
“I did write it.”
“I mean the screenplay,” Scott said.
“I’m not really a screenwriter. I wrote one once, but it never sold.”
“You can do it, no problem. The thing is I think you need to pitch him face-to-face. I can set up a meeting.”
Paul was game. “Sure. He’s coming to New York?”
“No, he can’t travel. He’s scheduled for some surgery. His heart I think. But you can meet in L.A.”
“What about expenses?” Paul inquired.
“It would be on your dime. But I think it’s worth the investment. It’s an amazing opportunity. Unless you have something better cooking. I mean this is fucking Roger Edmunds!”
“Okay, let me just talk it over with my—“
“My assistant will reach out to you with all the details. Oh, and keep it quiet about the surgery. He doesn’t want word to get out. Keep me posted. Good luck.”
Paul knew this wasn’t exactly an offer but it was an opportunity. And he hadn’t had too many of those. It was a glimmer of hope, a chance, maybe his last chance. And Paul knew he had to seize it. He swallowed his pride and borrowed money from his surgeon brother, whom he already owed, to fly out to Los Angeles.
It was almost midnight when Paul drove off the rental car lot in a beat-up, sputtering, sub-compact Ford Fiesta.
At 1 AM, in his room at the Motel 6 Hollywood, Paul sat at a tiny desk eating vending machine mini-pretzels as he read an old Vanity Fair article on his laptop. The headline: “ROGER EDMUNDS: THE DIRECTOR AS BURNED OUT SUPERSTAR.” The article featured a close-up photo of a young wild-eyed Roger screaming though a bullhorn, circa 1972. Paul read about how Roger had been part of the “New Hollywood” of the Seventies, the golden age of modern American filmmaking. Roger was described as a cinematic virtuoso, mentioned in the same breath as Coppola, Bogdanovich, Friedkin and Cimino. Mavericks and Young Turks. How Roger’s most successful effort was Nightmares, considered a horror film that transcended the genre. A classic. Roger was dubbed The Master Of The Macabre. Nightmares had been an artistic and commercial triumph. Regarding how Roger got so rich, he had made money off the five sequels even though he didn’t direct them. Roger was treated royally by the industry and he had grown accustomed to the lavish lifestyle of a king. The article said he was still a player because of the fact that Hollywood will throw money at any director who even once helmed a financial success.
The next page was subtitled: “Tragic Deaths On Set.” Paul read that, after a series of box office bombs of every style and stripe, there was a tragic accident on a film Roger was shooting in Montana. Two extras were killed in an explosion. There was a trial but Roger was exonerated. That was 20 years ago and Roger hadn’t made another film since. But not for lack of trying. With several projects in development Roger was more than ready, willing and able.
The next morning Paul, dressed in slacks and sport jacket, checked his iPhone. “Proceed 1.4 miles and make a left on Laurel Canyon Boulevard,” the navigation voice commanded. Paul was driving West on Hollywood Boulevard. In the slow-moving traffic he craned his neck at the Egyptian, Chinese and Dolby Theaters. Crowds of tourists tramping over the Walk of Fame. A street performer clad as Superman being arrested by two cops.
Paul drove over to Sunset Boulevard into residential Beverly Hills and then through the East Gate of Bel Air. He made a sharp left up a private road and stopped before a closed gate arm. As Paul lowered his window a uniformed guard stepped up.
“I have an appointment with Roger Edmunds. Paul Slater.”
The guard consulted a clipboard. “Go right up, Mr. Slater. It’s 3473.”
“Thank you.” Paul stopped at the iron-gated driveway, stuck his hand out the window and pressed the button on the intercom.
“Hello?” asked a crackling male voice.
“It’s Paul Slater.”
The gate swung open. Paul drove until he saw a mansion sitting on top of the hill. It was impressive in size and style. Paul could see the amazing view of Los Angeles below. On the grounds were a north-south tennis court. Elaborate flower gardens. Working water fountains. In the distance a large swimming pool. Paul closed the car door and reflexively pressed the remote lock. BEEP. He looked around, embarrassed, realizing no one was going to steal the dented rental.
Paul straightened his sport jacket, took a deep breath and walked to the front door which swung open. Ernesto, a well-groomed Colombian houseman, greeted him with a smile.
“Please…” said Ernesto, motioning Paul inside,
Paul followed Ernesto past the spacious foyer and a grand staircase into the living room. Paul took in the expanse which was filled with overstuffed furniture, artwork by old and modern masters, a baby grand piano and a large stone fireplace.
“Please have a seat. Roger will be with you shortly. Can I get you some coffee or juice?” Ernesto offered.
Paul went to a couch and sat down. He tried to settle but the little pillows made him lean off-kilter.
“Just throw the pillows anywhere.” Paul looked up to see Roger Edmunds behind aviator glasses. The 75-year-old was dressed in a tailor-made jump suit. “Make yourself comfortable. Please call me Roger. How was your flight?”
Roger plopped down on an armchair.
“You live in New York?” Roger asked.
“Yes. In Brooklyn.”
There was a long silence. Uncomfortable, Paul broke it. “So you read Cratered, my short story?” Paul ventured.
“Yes,” Roger said.
“What did you think of it?” Paul asked.
“It’s an interesting story. But I have absolutely no idea how to make a movie out of it,”
Paul was stunned.
Roger stared blankly at him. Just then Ernesto entered with Paul’s glass of water. “You met Ernesto. He’s my boss who runs everything when my wife is out of town. She’s Under-Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, you know.”
Paul hadn’t known this.
“About my story. I think of it as a Kafkaesque thriller,” Paul offered. “I mean the old lady’s predicament.”
“Why should anyone give a shit about the old lady?” asked Roger.
“Well, it’s a universal situation. But it wouldn’t have to be an old lady.”
“And it takes place in Prague? So the characters are speaking…?”
“Czech. But obviously I wrote it in English.”
Roger shook his head. “I can’t do that anymore. Audiences today are too sophisticated to buy English-speaking actors playing foreigners. It would have to be in Czech. And I don’t know any Czech actors.”
Paul asked, “What about Shakespeare?”
“Shakespeare? He wasn’t Czech.”
“Romeo and Juliet are Italian. But he wrote it in English.”
“And what was the last Shakespeare movie that made money?” Roger queried. “Can’t do it.”
Paul decided to make one last ditch effort. “I thought you might be thinking of giving it a horror spin like you did Nightmares. That is such a genre classic. That’s why you’re The Master Of The Macabre.”
Roger’s face reddened. “Don’t you ever fucking call me that!”
Paul recoiled into the couch.
“That label killed my career. I’m not a fucking horror hack. I’ve worked in every style and genre. My biggest hit happened to scare the crap out of people. But it was a curse to me. I never had a winner again.” Roger calmed himself down. “The horror pictures today are just torture porn for geeky gore hounds who don’t know the first thing about real fear and real violence.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Paul apologized. “But maybe there’s another angle to my story that would work.”
Roger was adamant. “Forget it. You’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m not doing your story. My next project has to be special.”
Paul was baffled. “So why did you want to meet with me?”
“I didn’t. Let me explain something. I’m a client at Inspired Artists. They put a team of agents on me. They haven’t done dick. I said I was leaving. Then suddenly they start bombarding me with material. In the steaming stinking pile of crap they sent over, your story was the only thing that was half-decent. A zircon in the dung.”
“Thanks. I think,” Paul said.
“I told them I had no idea how to make a movie out of it. But they said you were coming to town and would love to meet. So as a last courtesy I accepted. It looks like they misled you, too.”
“I flew out because my ex-agent said you were interested in filming my story and maybe I could write the screenplay.”
“It’s the oldest fucking trick in this town. The double reverse bait and switch.”
Paul was dazed. “I knew it sounded too good to be true.”
“Sorry,” Roger sympathized. “This fucking business will break your heart. With all the bullshit why did we become artists anyway?”
“If I had any brains I’d retire and go sailing.”
Paul deflated. “I guess I’ll see if I can book a flight back tonight.”
Roger looked at Paul with pity. Paul avoided his gaze and spotted something across the room.
“Hey, is that a Cezanne?”
“Sure is. Come and take a look,” Roger said and strolled toward the painting on the wall. Paul followed. They stared at an oil of a bowl of apples. “Picked this up a few years ago,” boasted Roger. “There’s our whole universe in that goddamn bowl of fruit. Cezanne could really see. Every dimension. Inside and out.
Paul looked around the room. His college History of Art 101 course kicked in. “DeKooning. Francis Bacon. A Picasso. Wow!”
Roger shrugged. “None of their major stuff but I love them. For most of the assholes in this town art is a business investment. I only buy what nourishes my soul.”
Paul was drawn to a small dark oil in a corner of the room. He looked closer at the painting. It was a disturbing scene. A king presided over a court of deformed dwarves dressed in fools’ costumes.
“What is this?” Paul asked.
Roger smiled enigmatically. “Oh that—“ Just then Claire, an intense 30-year-old Vassar grad entered with an iPad.
“Excuse me, Roger. I need to speak with you.” Claire gave Roger a serious look. “Maybe we should step outside.”
Roger nodded. They went out to the patio. Paul emitted a long defeated moan. He could hear snatches of their conversation. “The inside word is that with Harry as the new chairman they’re getting rid of all the dead wood.” “So the project’s dead?” “Expired. Extinct. They won’t admit it. And they won’t let us have it in turnaround.” “Four years’ work down the toilet. And we have nothing else in the pipeline.” “Also I heard from the bank. They’ve called in the loan. They’re coming for the Cezanne.” “Shit! What the hell am I going to tell Karen? She doesn’t know I put it up as collateral. She’ll leave me if she knows how broke I am.” “What about Lars Knudsen? You said when you met him in Washington he offered to back you.” “I very much doubt he was serious.” “Now’s a good time to find out.”
In the living room, Paul uneasily paced back and forth. Then his eye caught a Los Angeles Times article at the bottom of the page. It was headlined: “THE STREET CORNER MIRACLE.” He read the paper intently.
On the patio, Roger was Skyping into Claire’s iPad. “Of course I’m serious!” Lars, a peculiar billionaire, declared. “I would love to bankroll a Roger Edmunds film. Do you have something viable?” Roger gave the screen his most charming smile. “It’s something very special, Lars. An amazing project. If I can be immodest for a moment, I think it’ll be my masterpiece.” Then Roger chuckled. “And it’ll make a shitload of money, too.”
“Sounds great, Roger!” Lars enthused. “Stay in touch.”
When they’d hung up, Roger turned to the assistant and ordered, “Go back to the office and start looking through the files. There’s got to be something we can find.” Moments later, Roger came back into the living room. Only then did he remember Paul was there.
“Well, kid, sorry you had to fly all the way out here for nothing.”
“Roger, I totally understand you want, at this point in your career, only to work on a truly great story." With excitement in his voice, Paul continued. “I have that story.” Roger turned to look at him skeptically. “Did you see the paper this morning? On the bottom of page 12 there was a little article about a woman with a newborn baby. They’re walking on the street. Her baby stops breathing. She doesn’t know what to do. She tries to call 911 but she drops her cell phone and it breaks into pieces. The baby’s turning blue. She freaks. No one is around except this homeless guy. The baby’s not moving. Dead.”
“That’s the story?” Roger queried.
“The homeless guy comes over and starts breathing into both the baby’s mouth and nose. He’s doing artificial respiration. A minute goes by. Nothing. Suddenly, the baby coughs, opens its eyes, comes back to life. The homeless guy saved a life.”
Roger was riveted. Paul leaned forward. “The kicker? He was a fireman. Five years before he was carrying a little kid out of a burning house. The floor gave way. Kid slipped out of his hands and died. The guy blamed himself. Became an alcoholic. Then a drug addict. Living on the streets. Finished. Through a twist of fate he’s transformed.”
“Into a hero,” Roger noted.
Paul nodded. “This story has it all. The fall from grace. The struggle against death.”
“Redemption.“ Roger added. “And it can be changed so we don’t have to worry about buying the rights. You got a title?”
Paul thought a moment. “The Kiss Of Life.”
“I like it,” Roger stated. “You have any dinner plans?”
That evening, Paul pulled up in front of a well-known eatery on Melrose. “Nice car,” the valet wisecracked as he handed Paul a ticket for $10. As Paul tried to think of a snappy comeback but couldn’t. Paul approached the maitre’d
“I’m meeting Roger Edmunds.” The man led Paul across the floor to a banquette where Roger sipped a glass of red.
“Hope you’re hungry,” Roger said as he motioned Paul to sit. A waiter approached with a menu but Roger waved him away. “I already ordered us dinner. Steak au poivre. I have a craving for red meat.”
Just then, Chris, a young but successful director, stepped up to the table. “Roger, my hero!” Chris exclaimed. Chris raised his hand and Roger reluctantly high-fived him. “I’m shooting at Warner’s, Stage Three. Drop by. It would be an honor, hombre!” Then Chris turned to Paul and nodded toward Roger. “He’s my main Amo del Macabro!”
As Chris sauntered away, Roger grumbled, “Asshole. Stupid kid is directing a $150 million picture. Can you fucking believe it?”
Harry, the 60-year-old film mogul, passed by trying to ignore Roger who wasn’t having it. “Hello, Harry!” said Roger. Harry stopped and put on a big smile. “Congratulations on the promotion.”
“It’s all bullshit,” replied Harry, “Chairman’ just means I’ll be running interference with the stockholders and begging banks for money.” Awkward silence. “I’m handing over your project to Jennifer. She thinks it’s another Nightmare. She’ll call you.” Another awkward silence. “When things settle down we’ll have you and Karen over for dinner.” Harry walked off to be greeted by well-wishers.
“He’s a cock-sucking devious prick. He just killed the movie I’ve been trying to shoot for four years,” Roger complained. “They pretend to kiss my ring but when it comes to getting a green light I’m shunned. They don’t want competition from an old dinosaur. Back in the day, you could find a home at a studio. You’d get an office, overhead, development money. First look deals, second look deals. They’d assign you some exec who got what you were trying to do. Today, unless it’s a comic book superhero fighting a CGI arch-villain, forget about it.“
Roger nodded at the whole room. “All moronic backstabbing vampires. But I don’t need them. I got an ace in the hole. Lars Knudsen. Ever hear of him? He’s a multi-billionaire. From Minneapolis. He invented the ‘chip clip,’ then got into oil and gas big time. He’s my number one fan and he’s chomping on the bit to bankroll my next film.”
“You think my story—“
“He’ll go apeshit for it,” Roger assured Paul. “But we have to get it into proper shape to present it. Can’t go in with our pants around our ankles. Are you WGA?”
“That’s good, very good. You’ll work on spec? We come up with a script. We get a deal. You get money. Sound fair?”
“What about my living expenses?”
“What expenses? You come live at the house. Free room and board. It’s not a bad pool house. And the food’s pretty good.”
Paul was torn. “I don’t know. My family…”
“We’ll knock out a draft in no time. You’ll be back home two, maybe three weeks tops,” Roger reassured. “Paul, I’ve read your stuff. You’re a very talented writer with something special. A voice that’s original. This story’s a winner. And you’ve got the goods to nail it.”
For the first time in a very long time Paul felt something stirring inside. It was hope and confidence and the conviction that his life experience and insight and craft made him a gifted storyteller.
“You’re going to resurrect me, Paul,” Roger proclaimed.
“And you me, Roger.”
They clinked wine glasses and drank.
The next morning, Paul pulled up to Roger’s house in Bel Air just as two art movers carried a crated painting out the door. Ernesto greeted Paul and showed him to the pool house. The shag carpeting was dark, dank and messy with skis, stacks of metal film cans, a folded cot and a big 35mm projector. Maria, the maid/cook, was straightening up.
“Roger used this as his screening room,” Ernesto explained.
Just then Roger entered. “No one projects film anymore. Instead of giant luscious pictures we watch tiny crappy digital images on handheld phones. The cinema as we know it is in its fucking death throes.” He told Paul. “They don’t shoot film either. It’s tragic. Tarantino and Scorsese asked me to sign a petition to save celluloid. I told Marty and Quentin, ‘You’re pissing into the wind. No company is willing to pay millions for negative stock and prints when you can use a cheap computer chip.’ Those days are gone forever.”
Just then Roger noticed Maria uncovering a loud 70’s style L-shaped sectional. “I had my first three-way on that couch! I’d just won my first Oscar. I was single. I had final cut. I was a king in this town. During one picture I was banging four actresses in my cast, plus others on the side. It’s a miracle I wasn’t murdered. “
Paul was impressed.
“But let’s stop fucking around and get to work. Meet me by the pool in a half hour. We can write out here.”
Roger took one last longing look around the house and exited.
A half hour later, Paul set up his laptop and digital voice recorder. Roger appeared wearing a beach-robe over a bathing suit. “Turn that shit off! Paper and pen! I work analog!” he instructed Paul.
Roger stared off into the distance. Maria brought a tray of snacks. Paul started to reach for a grape. “Write this down!” Roger commanded. “We should start with the mother and baby. Establish the relationship. The bond. The love. The innocence. Then what?”
Paul thought. “How about we go to the homeless guy. Show his day-to-day life in contrast.”
“Cross-cutting?” Roger considered.
“He’s looking for his first drink, maybe he snorts some horse, maybe he gets mugged and they take his shoes,” Paul suggested.
“He’s hit bottom. He’s the lowest of the low,” Roger added. “Let’s make the mother a widow. Leaves her open for a romantic involvement.”
“But isn’t that too convenient,” Paul worried.
“Who cares? It’s about emotion,” Roger declared.
Just then Roger was texted his wife just arrived back from Beijing.
“Paul, keep working. And come to dinner at seven.”
Paul looked at his scribbled notes and sighed.
That evening Paul was perusing the artwork in the living room while Roger was mixing up a batch of what he called “the best martinis you’ve ever tasted. The recipe is Spencer Tracy’s.” Paul studied the strange painting of the king and jester dwarves. It both repulsed and engrossed him. “I see you’re admiring the Inchancco. Seventeenth century Spanish. Painter to the court of Philip the Third. It’s called ‘The King’s Fools.’ These were the actual dwarves. Back then people with physical deformities or mental retardation were considered highly amusing and at the same time touched by the gods. Parents would offer them. It was an honor to be chosen. And there were also criminal groups called Comprachicos who stole young children and mutilated them, like human bonsai trees, and then sold them to the royal courts.”
“That’s horrible,” Paul exclaimed.
“They didn’t have it so bad. They were fed, clothed and they got to live in the castle. The really clever ones could get away with insulting their masters without them even knowing it.”
Just then Roger’s third wife entered. Paul turned to see Karen who at 60 was elegant and beautiful but steely. “I’m starving now that the Ambien has worn off,” she said
“Maria’s prepared a Mexican feast,” Roger announced. “Paul, I hope you like Oaxacan.”
Karen noticed the bare spot on the wall.
“Roger, where’s the Cezanne?”
“Oh, Ernesto dinged the frame. It’s being repaired. Let’s eat!”
In the dining room Roger and Karen and Paul silently watched Maria serve them. Paul was uncomfortable, self-conscious. He turned to Karen. “Roger told me you just got back from China.”
“I was at the Pacific Rim Trade Conference. Disgusting. I never saw so much spitting in my life.”
Roger jumped in. “Paul and I are writing the most marvelous script. It’s about the resurrection of a lost soul. A homeless drug addict saves a baby’s life. It’s not going to be one of those stupid noisy tentpoles. And definitely not a horror. It’s uplifting and commercial.”
“Well, best of luck with that,” Karen snorted.
“Thanks for your support.” Roger responded.
“You goddamn asshole!” Karen hissed. She threw down her napkin and stormed out of the dining room. Paul was stunned.
“She’s stressed out. She’s flying to Washington tomorrow. I better give her some TLC.” Roger stood. “Keep working and we’ll meet tomorrow. Make sure you try all the mole sauces.” Roger left the room.
Maria looked at Paul and shrugged. “Locos.”
Late that night in the pool house, Paul was working on his laptop when he heard an argument. He stepped outside. He could make out the shouting voices of Roger and Karen coming from the main house.
“Why can’t you just calm down!” Roger ordered.
“Because you’re a sleazy bastard!” Karen yelled.
Paul listened, fascinated.
“Put that down!” Roger demanded.
“You put that down!” Karen challenged.
Paul looked up to the lit second floor bedroom window but couldn’t see inside.
“I’m warning you, Karen!”
“What are you going to do? Kill me like you did those extras? You can’t pay your way out of jail this time!”
“I warned you!” Roger exploded.
Suddenly there was a crash and the sound of shattering glass. Then Karen’s bloodcurdling scream. Paul saw Ernesto run up the stairs.
Paul pulled out his cell phone to dial 911. Just then Ernesto came down carrying a bloody bed sheet and disappeared into the laundry room. Paul watched, shaken. He was about to speak to the emergency operator when he heard Roger and Karen laughing uproariously. Bewildered, Paul put the phone down
The laughter echoed.
Paul wondered what he had gotten himself into.