TV FICTION PACKAGE: A TV writer has only one shot to impress or blow the meeting. 3,004 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
"I’d tell you to start writing your Emmy acceptance speech," her agent barked at her over the phone that morning, "but first you have to get the assignment. You have a pilot pitch meeting with Carl Greenspan in an hour. So get over there."
The L.A. skyscraper was perched above Sunset and Doheny and Greenspan had a suite of offices on the top floor, with a prime view of the smog. Rachel expected to see framed one-sheets from Greenspan’s TV shows, but instead an extraordinary series of David Hockey photo collages hung on the beige corridor walls. Greenspan surprised her, too. She’d expected someone small and squinty with designer running shoes and a Lakers cap. But he stood at least six foot three and was wearing a fringed leather jacket and alligator cowboy boots. His blonde hair was an obvious dye job, but it looked good on him. He waved her to the couch, and she was sure the huge mug of coffee he held was going to spill. But he had it under control.
“Come in, sit down, good to meet you.”
Rachel nodded to the floor-to-ceiling windows. “Nice view.”
He bellowed out a nasty laugh. “When you can see it. I know all about you so let me tell you about me. I bankrolled The Coppingers with my own money, every cent I made out of FDNY. When it went into syndication, I got a check for a hundred million dollars. CBS made a billion on that show. Since then I’ve been building homes and suing contractors and I’m sick of it. Retirement sucks. So I’m back. I’ve got a blind put-pilot deal at CBS, a budget through the roof and a punk star with the biggest Q rating on the fucking planet. Rick Haigley. Which brings me to the point.” He gulped the last of his coffee and set the mug down on his giant empty desk. “I want to do a terrorist show – Homeland for network TV, 24 with brains, Sleeper Cell with ratings. They have to use whatever I give them, but crap is all I’m getting. That’s where you come in.”
“So… other writers have worked on this?”
“Yeah, you weren’t my first choice. Phone the scoop into the trade papers. One guy gives me domestic terrorists planning to bomb a trench between here and Mexico – a moat. That was the title – The Moat. Seriously? I told him we already have that, you fucking moron. It’s called the Rio Grande! These other guys come up with a terrorist cell that winds up loving America – that’s the joke. They’re gorging on Twinkies and Big Macs, tailgating at football games, bragging about their iPhone apps. Then the government gets them to go back as double agents. I say double agents, okay, but not Muslims. Not this year, no one’s ready for that. Don’t get me wrong. I took in some Syrian refugees. Sweetest people you’ll ever meet. But this is network TV. We’re not here to save the world. We’re here to sell dish soap. What else? Oh yeah, A show about a fireman from New York. What a surprise, that pandering little prick! He even suggested using some of the cast from FDNY, as if they weren’t ten years too old by now. Anyway, the fireman has a private vcndetta and goes rogue. Suddenly he speaks Arabic, like that fat broad suddenly flying a helicopter in Spy. Who are they kidding?”
Rachel was thinking fast. “I have a terrorist story.”
What she had was the beginning of an idea. A notion. A thriller about sibling rivalry. There was no actual plot or characters, but that didn’t matter. She’d make it up as she went along. She had nothing to lose by pitching it now. Greenspan was shaking his head.
"What do you know about terrorists? That’s what I said to your agent when he told me to bring in some twenty-five year old twinkie – no offence – to pitch this material."
"I was a terrorist.”
"The pay was lousy. No benefits. I tried to unionize. So they kicked me out."
He laughed cautiously, seeing the smile at the edges of Rachel’s mouth. "That’s very good. That’s funny. But I mean, there aren’t any women terrorists. Only men get to be terrorists."
She decided not to argue that imbecile point. Obviously Greenspan didn’t know that ISIS — and before it Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang — had used women as terrorists. And the Boko Haram in Nigeria, training young girls to become suicide bombers. Rachel said, "You make it sound so desirable. Maybe you missed your true calling. Or am I just being tricked by your charm?"
"All right, all right — let’s hear the story."
Rachel stood up and started pacing. "It’s about two brothers. They’re both in the CIA, both good at their jobs – both multilingual, both expert killers, all that. One of them is given the toughest job of his life, which is infiltrating Red Chrysanthemum, a terrorist group that recruits unhappy kids from European universities."
He shook his head “I prefer Muslim terrorists. Not as double agents, like that other writer wanted to do. Just straight up bad guys. They’re the go-to terrorists. ISIS. Al Queda. The everyone-gets-it terrorists. No need for exposition.”
“There are plenty of non-Muslim terrorist groups in Europe.”
He grinned. “Name one.”
“GRAPO. Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre. They’re Maoists. They want Spain out of NATO.”
“Impressive. But I’ve never heard of them.”
“They haven’t done much lately. But Spain is still nervous. They put someone in jail for tweeting about them last year.”
“Okay, fine, whatever.”
“Great. So the two brothers –”
"Wait a second. How old are they? How can they pass for students?"
Rachel saw the hurdle and jumped it, barely pausing for breath. "Only one of them has to pass for a student. The younger brother signed up after college and has only been with the CIA for a year or two. He’s a real prodigy. His brother is five years older. Kind of like… Ben and Casey Affleck in Good Will Hunting."
"So the younger brother, call him Casey, goes underground at a university in Bonn. He meets the right people, throws bricks during the right demonstrations. He gets contacted by a terrorist cell and joins up. But he’s young and vulnerable, and these terrorists start to affect him. They’re not cynical like the people he works with in the CIA. They have ideals. They want change. They have this very romantic fervor and their arguments sound good to him. Casey has to appear passionately convinced. Not just in his words, either. In his breathing and the way he moves and thinks. Which makes it one hell of a part for Rick Haigley, because he gets to play an actor who’s getting lost in the role and going over the edge. One day he kills for the Red Chrysanthemum. That’s quite a moment, when the gun goes off and a hostage dies. We can save that for sweeps. Anyway, he and the group ride a wave of notoriety because of it. They’re getting more press than Baader-Meinhof ever did. And Casey starts turning into the man he’s pretending to be. After all, what are we, if we’re not what we say and do and think and feel? He has no contact with his own CIA people for months at a time. For all intents and purposes he is a terrorist. That’s the final meaning of deep cover, and that’s the reason so few people are able to do it convincingly. The only thing that connects Casey to his old life and his real identity is one frayed strand of consciousness. A thought. A memory.
"Back in Langley, his controllers are worried. Why haven’t they heard from him? Nothing to report? No opportunity? They start worrying that Casey has turned. He’s dangerous. He still has an insider’s knowledge of the CIA and the EDO, Emergency Defense Operations, which is the covert Israeli-trained anti-terrorist unit inside the CIA.”
"How do you know about that?"
"I don’t. I just made it up." Rachel was on a roll.
"So what happens next?"
"Their only hope is to snap Casey back to reality by shocking him, to hit him with something from his past. They get their chance when the group hijacks a plane and sets it down at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran. The terrorists have their demands, and when they’re met they’ll release the hostages and disappear. But the CIA sends Casey’s older brother Ben in as a negotiator. They hope the sight of a family member will jolt Casey into coming back to the CIA’s side. The terrorists let Ben on board the plane to talk. The brothers make contact. They’ve worked together before and they have great teamwork. They waste the other terrorists. But then we discover that the cell chief only permitted the ‘negotiation’ because he knew everything in advance. Some double agent inside the CIA betrayed the brothers, and now the chief wants both brothers with electrodes on their testicles ratting out America’s Middle East defense policies and counter-terrorist strategies. So Ben and Casey are reunited. A two-man army. And they have to fight their way out of the plane and out of Iran, away from the terrorists, through Turkey and across Europe, chased by the cops and the secret services of five countries as well as the remaining terrorist cell members."
"Why doesn’t the CIA tell the NATO countries to call off the pursuit?"
There was a brief pause. Good question, Rachel thought. Greenspan was smarter than he looked. Why don’t they? Why wouldn’t they? This making up stories on the fly left something to be desired. Then she had it — not great but adequate.
"They don’t know why the brothers ran. They don’t know about the leak. The brothers were supposed to turn themselves in at the American residency in Tel Aviv. The CIA assumes their worst fears are true – Casey really has gone over. He’s unstable and has to be terminated. Ben is either an accomplice or a hostage. They can sort that out after Casey is killed."
"So now the stage is set for a great sequence of chases all over Europe. Our guys against the world. And while they’re fighting their way home, they’re becoming brothers again."
"So they get back to America. Then what?"
"Casey is officially cleared. He has a truckload of information about the terrorist setup. He’s going to get a special commendation from the President."
"And that’s it?"
Rachel could see Greenspan wasn’t satisfied. "No," she said carefully. "This sets up another sweeps period. There’s a final twist."
Greenspan sat forward.
Rachel was thinking furiously. What were the possible reversals at this point? To buy time she asked for a latte. They made small talk for a few minutes while they waited for Greenspan’s assistant to bring the coffee: New York versus L.A., work versus retirement, Atkins versus Paleo.
When the latte came, Rachel was ready. She took one sip, and set her cup down. "Casey really did become a terrorist. He’s totally brainwashed. It wasn’t a lie: he was glad to see his brother again. But Casey was also manipulating Ben. As soon as he saw Ben enter that airplane, Casey knew he had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to enact the great dream of the Red Chrysanthemum — the assassination of the President of the United States."
"And he was willing to kill his own people on the plane?"
"Of course. Killing for show is his specialty. And now, after one final confrontation with Ben — who figured out what was going on — he’s left his brother for dead and is heading to the White House for his commendation ceremony, and to kill the President, right there in the Oval Office.”
“Wait a second, Ben ‘figured out what was going on’? How?”
“That’s just a detail.”
“It’s a crucial detail. It’s the whole story, right there.”
Rachel felt a stuttering twirl of panic. Greenspan was staring at her with a victorious smile, leaning back with his hands on his knees. Checkmate in two moves. What could Ben have noticed?
“Casey’s tattoo,” she said.
“He had an American flag tattooed on his forearm when he was in high school. But he lasered it off after he joined the terrorists.”
“Ben wouldn’t have seen that right away?”
“No, because… because Casey kept one of those temporary tattoo patches with him all the time in case he needed to fake his old American identity. He’s an ex-Boy Scout. He’s always prepared.”
“Like keeping a condom in your wallet,” Greenspan smirked.
“Well, uh – yeah, sure. Just like that. So when Casey first sees Ben on the plane, he ducks into the lavatory and puts it on. All he needs is sixty seconds and a wet paper towel. But after all that hand-to-hand combat and bad weather, the tattoo starts to rub off. Just a little. But enough. Ben sees it, puts the pieces together and confronts Casey. They fight and Casey leaves him for dead. But Ben isn’t dead, and the last ten minutes of the first season finale are an agonizing cat and mouse game, brother against brother, coming to a climax in the Oval Office."
Greenspan was frowning.
"Brother against brother? Why doesn’t Ben just call the Secret Service?”
Greenspan was relentless. Rachel squeezed her eyes shut and took a sip of her latte, but the foam had dissolved and it was cold. His questions were starting to give her a headache. Why not call the Secret Service or the cops?
"Ben does. He tries to. But Casey has deliberately sabotaged him. Casey is now the golden boy of the CIA and, according to him, Ben lost his mind on the way home. Started talking about suicide and assassination. When Ben calls the Secret Service to warn them, they launch a manhunt for him. So he calls the CIA — but winds up talking to the very double agent who set him up in the first place."
"The one who leaked the brothers’ plans to the terrorists?"
Rachel could see that Greenspan was on board now, riding the story with her. She rushed on.
“So Ben thinks the CIA guy is warning the President. But the President knows nothing and every cop in four states as well as half the Secret Service and a platoon of CIA security are chasing him while he tracks his brother and the clock runs down."
"How does it end?"
"Casey is about to kill the President, but Ben blows him away before the gun fires. Then the Secret Service kills Ben. Or not."
"You don’t know?"
Damn right, she felt like saying, I didn’t know any of this until half an hour ago. "I thought I’d let you decide that."
“Okay, then what?”
“You just described Season One. The first twelve episodes of Homeland were good, too. At the end you’ve got the dead brother and a lot of blank pages.”
“Ben is alive and keeps working for the government. He can go anywhere and do anything. Wherever the current hotspot is when we start breaking the second season. He could even have another brother.”
A moment of silence. Then Greenspan stood up. He walked around his desk and shook her hand formally. Had she blown it? There was no way to tell.
“That was very interesting,” Greenspan said. “In fact I let it run a little long. I have several people waiting to see me. Other writers. With other terrorist stories. Thanks for coming by."
She had driven back to the beach with the smog in her rear-view mirror. It felt as if it was inside her head as well. The meeting would undoubtedly come to nothing. She would never hear from Greenspan again. At least he had been honest in his indifference. She had made up stories, augmented stories, pitched her favorite stories in so many meetings that she had long ago lost count of them. But it was always futile. Maybe she didn’t perform well. Maybe she made men nervous. Maybe her ideas just weren’t commercial or exciting enough. At that moment she didn’t care what the reasons were for her succession of failed pitches, she was just glad to be heading home.
And now, less than a month later, Greenspan, the producer who had seemed the most bored and dismissive, was going to buy her concept and make her the showrunner of a major network series. The irony amused her; this was Hollywood business as usual. You never heard from the enthusiastic ones who called you a genius. It was probably the easiest way they knew to get you out of their office. But the rude debunking jerks were the ones who wanted to make the deals.
Well, Greenspan might be a prick but he’d be signing her checks on this project. Now there was just one more problem.
She had to sit down and actually write the thing.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season