Dante flexes his power as both a screenwriter and a blogger. 2,950 words. Part One. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Creeping over the Century City skyscrapers, the sun’s harsh rays bathe my 1966 Ford Mustang as I take the 10 from Santa Monica towards Robertson. Ray-Bans I’ve owned since my first week in L..A shield my eyes from the glare and the breeze rushes over the windshield, tousling my already unkempt hair. If this cinematic moment was captured on 35 mm film, it would appear liberating, a sun-drenched endorsement of SoCal living. Nothing could be further from the truth. Under the crushing weight of the CO2 hovering above the L.A. Basin, this drive couldn’t be more claustrophobic and suffocating. As I light up a cigarette, combining the air pollution with tobacco and nicotine may seem like overkill, but I am nothing if not the author of my own story.
I turn west on Wilshire and, in the space of ten minutes, I reach the STA offices. I ride the elevator to the eighth floor and take a seat across the desk from my agent, Dave Chaikin.
“I love this fucking script, Dante!” he yells, slamming a closed fist on the desk between each word, a poor man’s Ari Gold in a rich man’s Armani Collezioni suit. Once upon a time, Dave was a fledgling literary agent in search of the screenplay that would make him a major player. Dave would have me believe the moment he read Galaxy Hoppers, my 120-page tome, it was love at first sight. He created enough buzz that there was a bidding war and then sold it to Global Studio Media.
Now, I stare at my latest screenplay on his desk, the one I’ve affectionately named Skylar And The Ninja Ghosts, as Dave asks, “I have to know, after all this fucking time, what compelled you to finally put pen to paper again?”
“Insomnia,” I joke. “I’ve been in a bit of a slump, seemed like it was time to get out of it.”
“A slump?” he asks, dripping with concern. “Wish you’d said something sooner. Say the word and I’ll hook you up with my wife’s shrink. He’s given her a pill for everything. Point is, she’s never nailed as many auditions in her life as she has since she started seeing him. I’m sure that, with the right dosage, you too can be on the path to productivity.”
“Writing this script was my Prozac.”
The agent points at the screenplay, his eyes feverish with greed. “We are going to have so many buyers, you have no idea. This is the kind of movie the studios want to make right now.”
“I have one condition.”
Hesitant, Dave shifts in his chair, forcing a smile with all the sardonicism he can spare. “Name it.”
“No guns. If they want rewrites, they can’t include guns. Under any circumstances.”
I’d conceived my first script Galaxy Hoppers as a high-concept swashbuckling fantasy/sci-fi blockbuster. When Global bought it, they demanded the final set piece be structured around an epic shootout in an abandoned space station. I’ve never liked guns but they didn’t care. When I refused to redraft, they brought in another writer. Galaxy Hoppers came out eighteen months ago, grossing a billion dollars. I’ve been riding high on my share of the blood money ever since. As has Dave.
He smiles. “No guns, got it. I can work with that.”
“And all rewrites have to go through me.”
“Why are you so happy about this?”
“Because I’m psychic.”
“There’s already a buyer, isn’t there?”
“There might already be a buyer, yes. And I might have already anticipated your conditions. And the buyer might have already signed off on them and asked to meet you.”
“I’ll tell you, but I have a condition of my own. You have to keep an open mind.”
I scowl. “My mind is open. Who’s the meeting with?”
Dave hesitates. Then I realize. Dave’s reluctance confirms my suspicion.
“I don’t want to work with Global again. Not after last time.”
“That wasn’t one of your conditions.”
“It was implied.”
“Open mind, Dante!” Dave booms, before recalibrating his tone to resemble that of a human being. “Look, this won’t be like last time. I’ve been dealing with Adrian Kyle. He’s a good guy and he’s developed some great stuff.”
Dave’s not wrong. Throughout his ten-year career in studio development, Adrian’s career has been all about finding the next Star Wars or Indiana Jones. He’s walked the line between art and commerce with aplomb, nurturing quality original projects and guiding them towards box office success. At a time when sequels, remakes, and adaptations are the grease that keep the cogs of Hollywood turning, that’s no small feat.
“You may not know this, but Adrian fought Ted on the gunfight.”
“Fought and lost. Fool me once—”
“He’s been promoted since then. He has veto power now.”
“Global might not even exist this time next month.”
“Global isn’t going anywhere, despite the hacking scandal. Adrian wants to meet you so he can personally lay your mind to rest.”
I stand up to leave. “I’ll think about it.”
“Think about it. But don’t think too long. Not many other studios in this town are going to sign off on your conditions.”
“Then we won’t sell,” I shrug.
He scolds me with a look.
When I pull up to a nearby Starbucks, Alice, an associate of mine, is waiting for me. She’s been passing herself off to many in the industry as the mythical blogger “Sasha McLean” so that no one suspects me. “How’d it go?” I ask.
“I kept to the script. Played the video for Mike Leibowitz, said I wouldn’t publish a thing as long as he signed the letter of resignation from Global and gave me the exclusive.”
“I had to work overtime convincing him I wasn’t bluffing. Your blog’s reputation for not trafficking in stolen information precedes it. I told him there are worse things in life than crossing ethical lines. Like, you know, rape.”
“There’s something you should know. At one point he started begging, pleading, offering exclusive scoops if we destroyed the video. He was muttering something about the hacking and sexual harassment allegations no one knows about. I told him it wasn’t a negotiation.” She smiles proudly.
“This is why I pay you the big bucks.”
“You don’t pay me at all.”
“Only because you won’t let me.”
“A girl’s gotta have a hobby.”
“So he signed it?”
An email comes in confirming Mike has signed the letter and will be vacating Global effective immediately.
I turn to Alice. “Good work.”
“How did the meeting with your agent go?”
“He’s found a buyer. It’s Global.”
“Yeah.” I add, “The development guy there wants to meet me, make me see the light. But I think not.”
“I think you should. Because you have a teeny tiny glimmer of happiness in your eyes that wasn’t there before. Take the meeting.”
“You realize, if I become a big name screenwriter again, I’m going to have to stop blogging?”
“It would be morally questionable not to. Take the fucking meeting.”
Alice kisses me on the cheek before leaving.
I pull a MacBook Air out of my computer bag and begin writing a new blog post: “vp of finance mike leibowitz resigns from global amidst sexual assault scandal.” The article goes live. I reward myself with a smoke.
A woman in a tailored business suit sits alone at a picnic table in Roxbury Park. From behind Prada sunglasses, she cautiously scans her environment, running the pearls of her necklace between the tips of her fingers. With each passing cyclist and jogger, her posture stiffens, regarding them with equal suspicion. This is no less true when she spies me approaching.
Her name is May Torres. She’s a partner at Olsen Kim & Serkis —the law firm representing the sexual assault victim Blaine Colby. I take a seat on the other side of the picnic table and we look in opposite directions without once acknowledging the other.
“You said you have a smoking gun?” she asks.
“I do. A video.” I slide my cell across the picnic table to May. She is simultaneously disgusted and elated by what she sees. She turns to face me, handing the phone back. “How did you get this?”
“Does it matter?”
“It does if it’s inadmissible in court.”
“Legal advice isn’t my specialty.”
“You expect me to use it as leverage for a settlement,” May sighs. “How much do you want for the video?”
“It’s all yours.”
She regards me with skepticism. “What’s the catch?”
“No catch. Just a condition. Drop Global from the suit. An hour ago, Mike Leibowitz resigned. Global is unaware of his and Harris’s extracurricular activities. The hacks are crippling the studio. You sue them and win, maybe their parent company cuts its losses and hundreds of people lose their jobs. Or, you sue them and lose because the full weight of Global’s legal team crushes the suit and Blaine gets diddly. Leibowitz and Harris are good for the money. Your client’s going to be just fine. When he signs off on dropping Global, the video’s all yours.”
She nods, warming to the exchange. “Who are you?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I’m an entertainment journalist,” I tell her with wry amusement.
“You’re right. I don’t believe you.” May picks up her phone and dials Blaine Colby. While it rings, she turns to me. “This was all very clandestine. We could have just met in my office.”
“I’m all about the atmosphere.”
My return journey to Santa Monica is far more pleasant than this morning’s commute. With every passing mile, my lungs relax. Arriving home, I set up shop on the terrace with the laptop and a Scotch and write up the latest development I made happen in the sexual assault scandal. When it’s published, an involuntary smile creeps across my face. As much as selling Galaxy Hoppers may have been my damnation, the blog has been my salvation.
I dial my agent. “What’s up, Dante?” he says.
“Set up the meeting.”
It has come to my attention that I may have an addictive personality. I don’t say this because I’m in the midst of smoking my twenty-third cigarette of the day. I wouldn’t even say I’m addicted to tobacco or nicotine. Truth be told, I could take or leave them. I truly believe that. My addiction runs deeper than cigarettes.
As the last of the day’s sun sinks beneath the sea, turning the sandy shores of the beach a golden hue, I follow the footpath north and walk beneath the Santa Monica pier. I reach the other side in time to see the parking lot’s floodlights flicker to life. Within minutes, I’m ascending the steps that lead to the pedestrian bridge linking the beach and Ocean Avenue. I stop in the center above the rumble of traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway below. This view is everything to me. It’s Santa Monica in its purest form. It haunts me. Or maybe I haunt it, a specter with unfinished business.
This walk, the sights, the salt-tinged air, and food smells set the stage for my nightly bar hop. Allocating the time it takes to walk from my home to downtown Santa Monica for brooding is essential. Brooding buffers a day of working and a night of socializing. It’s both my light at the end of the tunnel and the silver lining around my rain cloud. This invariably leads me to wonder if what I do can really be called brooding if I enjoy it so much.
This is why I’m a screenwriter. I ask the big questions.
Tonight is no different than any other from the last three and a half years. In many ways, my relationship with Santa Monica is a love affair, and like any romance, when the honeymoon ends, there is only routine in its wake. In this instance, it’s more of a ritual than a routine. I may have an addictive personality, but it’s not because I’m an unrepentant chain smoker. Cigarettes and alcohol are just another part of my ritual. The ritual is Santa Monica, and Santa Monica is my addiction. If it didn’t fulfill a thousand and one sick little fantasies brought on by hours spent watching Bogie brood over Bacall, Angel brood over Buffy, Hank brood over Karen, I may even find it boring.
My bar hop begins with a five dollar happy hour whiskey at Copa d’Oro, an intimately lit refuge from the final moments of sunlight. I wash it down with an El Mirador and leave. I sample a few sliders at the Craftsmen a block over. The mini burgers absorb the alcohol and an acoustic cover band pays homage to Maroon 5. I walk to the end of Broadway and turn right on Ocean. I enter the Hotel Shangri-La and ride alone in the claustrophobic art deco elevator. When the door slides open, I catch my reflection in a glass panel, my face obscured by shadows. I’ve arrived at Onyx, the penthouse bar, and I order another whiskey. A couple of hours into the evening and Black Label tastes like water. I worry my life is a drink away from becoming Barfly.
When I light up, two women — one blonde, the other brunette — approach and ask for a light. I oblige. They remark on the DuPont’s blue flame and we swap numbers, making polite small talk until I tell them I have to go.
“We’ve just come from there! You meeting friends?” they ask.
I pause, consider my answer, settle on, “Something like that,” and throw the butt of my cigarette into a fire pit. “It’s been a pleasure.”
A busker’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” hangs over the Third Street Promenade and I walk to Cabana. The route is indirect, adding a couple of blocks onto what would otherwise be a one-block pilgrimage. My evenings are every bit as much about the journey as they are the destination.
The boho beach anthems of Cabana’s playlist — everything from the Beach Boys to The Who — greet me before I even reach the entrance. The doorman clocks me with familiarity, nods, and lets me through without so much as a second glance.
I walk through the open-air venue, passing a sign that reads, closed for private gathering, hanging from the entrance of the indoor lounge, before taking a seat at the bar. A boogie board hangs from the ceiling less than two feet above Kat, the bartender. “I’ve never been more glad to see you!” she offers, casually leaning on the bar. “You’re literally a life-saver.”
“Dying from boredom is totally a thing, right?”
“I often think so but the medical community has yet to recognize it.” I reciprocate the smile but sever eye contact.
Taking a sip from the glass, the Black Label flows over my taste buds, setting them alight in its wake. Gesturing to the access-restricted indoor lounge, I inquire, “What’s the occasion?”
“Some big name TV actress is hosting a private party,” she tells me. “And you’re invited.”
I shoot her a quizzical look.
“That’s all I know. Dante Lee. Only name on the guest list.
I study her eyes. She’s serious. Before I can even begin to guess why I would be on the list, “At Last” by Etta James fills Cabana. A chill runs down my spine and time stands still, the ambient noise of the bar dims and the song is all I hear. I down the last of my drink, place the glass on top of a ten dollar tip, and slide off my barstool. Walking in slow motion, I make my way to the lounge where a security guard steps to one side, letting me through.
The lounge is barren, populated only by faux-log cabin furnishings. The haunting vocals of Etta James spark memories that are never far from my mind. Memories of a simpler time, one that predates the nightly ritual of bars, alcohol, and tobacco. A time that, truth be told, gave birth to the ritual — a golden age that laid the groundwork upon which many a nostalgia-filled night has been built.
I walk through the room towards the backdoor. Heat radiates from the other side. Opening the door reveals a fire pit and beyond the flames stands a woman, her back to me, blonde hair flowing below her bare shoulders, cigarette smoke rising above her head. She wears a white top that doesn’t quite meet the waist of her long white skirt. A vertical slit exposes the length of her right leg.
I choke back my disbelief, fearing the woman before me is nothing more than an apparition, and utter, “Grace?”
Her decorated fingers lower the cigarette from her mouth and she slowly turns her head to face me. She hasn’t aged a day since we broke up. Her ivory skin as smooth as ever, her beauty remains untouched by the unforgiving Californian sun and a smoking habit developed in her teens. The only difference in her appearance is a slight sadness and an aura of world-weariness that didn’t exist in the Grace I once knew.
She offers a small smile as her eyes meet mine. I don’t know what to say, so I settle on nothing. A moment lingers between us, shock on my part and a reticence on hers.
I wonder why she’s here, now, after all these years. I need not wonder for long. Her lips part and she speaks the four words that tell me all I need to know.
“I need your help.”