Jason always dreamed of writing for TV/film. But not with Annie. 2,433 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
While most kids growing up wanted to be a cop or an astronaut, Jason Porta wanted to be a sitcom writer. Jason didn’t just watch TV shows, he waited for the credits to see who wrote or produced the series, then memorized the names. Eleven minutes after graduating from college, he gassed up his car, moved to Los Angeles, and got his first job faster than it takes most other writers to even secure an agent.
Jason’s career ended up being a classic case of fits and starts which happens when scripters make poor choices in writing rooms and alienate the wrong people. After some intermittent work, and a little bartending, Jason was fed up hoping the phone would ring with an offer to write witty comeback lines for millionaire 9-year-old actors. So he gave up on his big Hollywood dreams and moved back to New York where his days were spent trying to figure out what to do with his life.
One day Jason’s phone rang. It was a female voice from his sitcom days. “Jason? It’s Annie Siless. Whatcha doing?”
At that moment, Jason was introducing his soon-to-be ex-wife’s wedding dress to a pair of scissors. “Nothing. How’s it going Annie?”
“Selling, blah, blah, blah.” she said downplaying her success. “What’re you writing?”
“Nothing. That ship sailed, then it sank.”
“Wanna come work for me?”
Annie had graduated out of TV into movies which were were getting made in a niche she owned: young urban women trying to find love and success.
“You’ll write some scenes, pitch some jokes. I remember you being hysterical in the room. Are you still funny?”
“No, not anymore,” Jason said flatly.
“Great! I’ll pay you $3,000. Keep an eye on your email.”
Jason needed something to do other than being depressed. He thought maybe writing for Annie would invigorate him and his career, and then maybe producers and executives might rediscover him. An hour later, Annie sent him a one-page outline of the latest script she had sold along with the individual scenes she wanted him to write.
The script was an adaptation of a long-forgotten 1950s Billy Wilder-type film. Suddenly, the subject matter was timely. Together, a producer, an A-list actress, and Annie went to a studio to set the project up. Immediately, Jason rented the original and saw good bones there — a sweet social comedy about a girl who dreams of being famous. Annie’s update adding complicating factors due to social media.
The suggestions Annie sent were just guidelines: who was in the scene and what plot points were needed. Jason’s job was to figure out the where and how, along with dialogue. He wrote the scenes in under an hour, a welcome respite from his craptastic life. He spellchecked and hit send. On his way back to bed, the phone rang. It was Annie.
“Holy fuck! These are good. I mean really good.”
“Eh. I can probably do better.”
“You’re like a machine.”
“More like a shitty car that runs only intermittently.”
“Where did you get this talent?” she asked but with more than a hint of jealousy.
“I’m borrowing it. have to give it back by 11.”
“Ha! I’m sending you more stuff.”
Some of the scenes in the next batch from Annie had hardly any detail. A few others had nothing to do with the one page outline Jason had tacked up on a bulletin board for reference. This was a ploy Annie used often, the equivalent of filling her closet with clothes she might not ever wear but which would give her choices to contemplate. Jason began working on the scenes immediately. If they landed in his inbox on his way out the door to see his shrink, he’d start to write. If they landed in the middle of the night when he was up to get a glass of water, he’d start to write. Once, they landed in his inbox while he had a hamburger on the stove: he stopped to write only stopping when the smoke detector went off.
At first, their collaboration was all business. Annie had Jason write fifty or more scenes without ever showing him them in a form of a script. One day, a scene called for the lead actress to break up with the male star. Annie’s only note was that it had to start out politely, then escalate quickly, finally turning bitter and nasty. Jason used his last fight with his soon-to-be-ex-wife verbatim. Annie loved the dialogue, proclaiming it some of the best she’d ever read.
The first draft took almost a year to complete, a long time even for lazy Hollywood. When it landed in Jason’s inbox, he immediately printed it out and walked around the corner to his local coffee place. He was stunned that few of the scenes he had written were in the script, even scenes which Annie had told him were “mother-fucking homeruns.” What was there instead was bland and uninteresting and almost unrecognizable from what Jason thought they’d been working on. So he called her.
“Where are all the scenes I wrote?”
“You’re all over that script. Stop complaining.”
“I wrote, like, a bazillion scenes. Where’s the one in the limo? Or the one at the party where she confronts the girl she thinks he’s dating? Or the one where they break up?”
Annie took offense to his questioning and turned vicious. “You selfish little fuck. It’s not about you! It’s about what I want. You work for me. Remember that.”
Jason backed down immediately, something he would do again and again when Annie got toxic. “I’m sorry. It’s just that…”
“It’s just what? You do as you’re told and cash the checks.”
And she hung up. Jason looked around the coffee place and saw that all eyes were on him. He felt so small, sitting there knowing everyone had witnessed his humiliation.
Later, perhaps realizing she had gone too far, Annie forwarded Jason an email from the producer telling her how great certain lines were. Jason realized he was being stroked but it worked mostly because he was still such an emotional wreck that the compliments were welcome and necessary.
After the studio and the producer loved the final draft, everyone waited for the A-list actress to respond. And waited, and waited, and waited. She never did. For reasons unexplained, no attempt was ever made to attach another actress. Interest in the project waned until it was put in turnaround. Annie was crestfallen. She disappeared for a few weeks, something she would do again and again after a project fell apart. Sometimes Jason left a phone message but more often than not it would go unreturned.
Suddenly, Annie reemerged. Two more assignments rolled in, both rewrites, both premises similar to one another and just like the first assignment — young women trying to navigate career, men, and the big city. Clearly, Annie needed Jason and even offered him a raise. With her self-esteem up, and his self-esteem up, Jason figured now seemed like a good time to broach something he had been thinking about.
“Look, I’m so happy you have more work…”
“We have more work…” Annie corrected him.
He hemmed and hawed a bit, until Annie forced him to get to the point. “I was wondering how would you feel about us maybe writing a spec together? You send scenes, I do all the heavy lifting, just like we’ve been doing, and we’d split the credit and fee.”
“I love that idea!” Annie replied to Jason’s surprise and delight. “What do you think we should write about?”
“Well, divorce could be funny. And there’s never been a movie about it from the guy’s side. Let’s make lemonade," he said referring to his failed marriage.
“Yes, you’re a fucking genius! But about the fee. I have a quote, so you’d automatically be a part of that. Fifty-fifty won’t work. How about sixty-forty?”
“You’re worth more than forty,” Jason replied jokingly.
“Damn right I am,” Annie guffawed. “What do you say?”
“Okay! All we need to do is think about plot. I have some ideas. How about…”
“I’m going into a canyon now,” Annie interrupted. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t. “Talk later.”
And she was gone. Jason smiled. He’d found the courage to ask her and she’d said yes. Maybe, just maybe, Annie appreciated him enough to give him a leg up in his career.
Annie and Jason started to become closer personally. He even finally told her about the details behind his divorce. She asked a million questions about who his ex was, how they’d met, and why the marriage tanked. Meanwhile, they plowed through the rewrites in record time which was a load off his mind since he was beginning to feel as if he was writing the same scenes over and over again.
Annie didn’t help matters much. “Remember that brilliant scene you wrote in the diner?” she said once, referring to a previous assignment.
“From which script?” he asked. “I did dozens like that.”
I don’t remember. Just change the name of the characters and send it to me.”
“So, I’m stealing from myself now?”
“Very funny. Just send it in!”
That was about as complicated as their scriptwriting process got. Rarely did they ever sweat over a plot point, or talk in depth about a character. Their process had become rote and stale. Jason, now a little bored, began returning Annie’s calls a little slower than usual. Annie picked up on it and, totally on her own, broached a discussion of their languishing spec script.
“I’ve been thinking about our spec. Let’s start with the divorce, how she leaves him and he’s depressed. Blah, blah, blah…”
“Annie,” Jason interjected, “blah, blah, blah is my favorite part!”
“Stop joking and listen. He doesn’t want to stay in their condo so he sells it and, on a whim, moves to Kennebunkport.”
“No, Kennebunkport, Nebraska. Yes, Maine. He moves there because it was where he’d been happiest as a kid, and he wants to rediscover himself – in this idyllic small town.”
“Then what happens?”
“He somehow gets involved in small town politics. The mayor is some rich, crooked muckety-muck everyone is scared of and the divorced guy gets roped into running against him in the next election. By a girl.”
“Who’s the girl?” Jason asked.
“I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. These are the details we’ll figure out later.”
“Shouldn’t we figure them out now?”
“You want to do this or not?”
Jason thought for a moment. If he shits on the story, Annie walks away and goodbye spec. If he likes it, he’s a step closer to maybe making a sale and having the career he once hoped for. “I love it! When can we start?”
“Soon. We have other work to do. I’m sending scenes now.”
After the rewrites were completed, and with no paid work at hand, Annie started assigning scenes for the spec. Since Jason had spent months entertaining her with stories about his failed marriage, there was a lot of “use your fight over the books,” or “include the part about who gets the cat.” Twenty pages into the script, Jason took creative license with the marriage and made himself wealthier and better looking. He even learned a thing or two about himself, like how his glibness and sarcasm had alienated his ex making true conflict resolution a virtual impossibility. When he arrived at page fifty, he realized they’d be done with the spec in a matter of weeks. Annie must have realized this, too, because suddenly the scenes stopped coming. Jason asked for more, but Annie disappeared again. He wondered if this time it was intentional, a way to slow the process down. She knew he couldn’t finish on his own. Radio silence.
Flush with the money Annie was paying him and the profit from the sale of the condo, Jason started dating. This meant he wasn’t always available to return Annie’s calls as quickly. One night Jason was home in bed with a woman he’d met when his phone started to vibrate. It was Annie. He let the call go to voicemail. After they were done having sex, he listened to Annie’s message.
She was vicious, again. “I know you’re out on a date! We have a script to finish! Call! Me! Back!”
“Wow, she sounds like a psychopath. Or else she’s in love with you or something,” his companion said.
“She’s just a little territorial.”
“I would never let anyone talk to me like that much less someone I was working for.” The date lunged for his phone but couldn’t grab it. “Why don’t you admit it. She puts her hands down your pants and grabs you by the balls and squeezes until you do what she tells you to.” She reached for the phone again. “You’re a better writer than she’ll ever be. But either don’t know it or can’t admit it.”
This time the woman was successful, pushed redial, jumped out of bed and ran out of the room as Jason followed. Standing on the couch, she put the phone on speaker. Annie answered.
“Where the fuck have you been!?”
As Annie grew more incensed, Jason finally retrieved his phone. “Hey! Sorry I was out, Annie. What’s up?”
Annie explained that she sold yet another studio pitch, this one bigger and more high profile. The pitch was a high concept comedy that could take Annie’s career to another level. But it also would have kept Jason in golden handcuffs.
Midway through this latest assignment, Jason balked. “We’re over a year into our spec. Are we ever going to finish?”
Expectedly, Annie flipped out on him. “You selfish fuck! Let me remind you that I dragged you out of the gutter. Everything you have is because I gave it to you. A reason to get up every morning: me! A purpose to your day: me! Work and money: me! Shove your complaints up your ass you ungrateful little twit and just say thank you."
Jason tried but couldn’t get a word in. Annie then turned the knife in the other direction.
“You think you’re so special? So talented? I can open the window of my $4.7 million dollar Pacific Palisades home and throw a rock and hit a writer who can do what you do. So shut up and do as I tell you. Are we clear?”
Jason couldn’t speak.
“I said, are we clear?”
“We are,” he replied, backing down yet again.
And then Annie hung up. Again.
3 comments on “Hollywood Ghostwriter
Excellent story. It starts out as a great fantasy, then quickly turns into a nightmare. Like someone else said, extremely entertaining. This was a great read, thanks Robert.
Very funny and entertaining story, Robert. More, please!
Great read! Can’t wait for part 2.