Their studio has a new boss and two colleagues ponder what it means for their careers. 2,815 words. Illustration by John Mann.
"They picked the Pope?"
"What do you mean they picked the Pope?"
"I’ll tell you."
"Tell me what?"
"How they picked the Pope," Lewis replied.
"Well," said Andy, "Go right ahead."
The Pope, of course, was the nickname for the studio‘s titular head. Clearly, though, there was something bothering Lewis about this new boss. And while it was true the new Pope’s hiring should matter to a couple of creative executives like Lewis and Andy, there was something altogether feral about the way Lewis had lurched into work this day looking like five pounds of shit in a four-pound bag.
Andy had decided that in order to prevent, or at the very least delay, Lewis’ apparent mental breakdown over the fact his pick for the Pope had lost out, they should take an extra long lunch as far away from the studio as possible. Andy had told his assistant not to answer the phone until they got back.
Lewis cleared his throat. Seemed it was the only clear thing about him that morning. He looked tired, more so than usual. They’d had only one meal together before now, and that had been three years ago, and Lewis had talked mostly about himself. The narcissism, Andy thought, was still intact.
Although today Lewis’ eyes had suggested to Andy they had to get out of the offices immediately and go to the 101 Coffee Shop on Franklin, just south of the 101 Freeway, because it was the last place anyone would go looking for them. Now Lewis was doing all the talking, again.
Andy was considerably older than Lewis. He had seen a fair number of people like Lewis come and go in the two decades he’d been at the studio. But he’d never met anyone with the same manic intensity as Lewis who’d been able to back it up with results. Nobody else had been looking at obscure comic books for story material like Lewis years ago. Now, half of fucking Hollywood was at Golden Apple every Wednesday after work, scouring new titles. For all his hubris, Lewis was brilliant at anticipating movie trends. His mood swings were part of the package. And he kept in his head detailed notes on studio politics which he was now ready to explain to Andy.
"OK," said Lewis, "so they picked the Pope this time by having Marc come in and do all the dirty work for them. Now, never you mind Marc. It’s not his fault. He just picks up the paycheck at the end of the day. Has a kid. Nice wife, in a distant staring-at-the-ocean-with-wind-in-her-hair kind of way. Anyway, I’m getting off track. Where was I. Oh yeah, so they had Marc come in and do his thing. But it’s not about him. It’s about the people that paid him to do it.
"And those people are all in some higher up echelon that not you, me, or anyone that we know is really at the same level. But the point is that we should align ourselves with them. And we don’t have to go after Marc. Not if we don’t’ want to, that is."
Andy had read about Japanese men who spend their whole lives perfecting sushi. He wondered if Lewis had spent 10 years perfecting pity.
Lewis leaned back in the booth, exhausted. It was clear to Andy that Lewis hadn’t slept much, if at all, simply by the amount of coffee he was drinking. Andy was barely a half cup in but Lewis had already refilled his from the glass pot in the middle of the table that the waitress had left for them.
Lewis never drank in full gulps, just lots of small sips, Andy noticed. He wasn’t sure what that meant, though, and decided to catalog it away for later.
"You shouldn’t have come to work today," said Andy, "You look like dog shit."
"Well, maybe I do look like shit," said Lewis, "But I’m working twice as hard as the next guy and now I don’t know if we are on the right side of the Pope and…"
"Lewis," Andy interrupted, "what the fuck are you talking about?"
"Well, the axe has to fall, right? They can’t just keep dangling an axe over our heads."
“Does it matter who the Pope is?” said Andy, “It really doesn’t. You know that ultimately it comes down to these investors. Hollywood accounting being what it is, half the money comes from Mideast oil profits or Chinese investors. Worrying about who’s the studio boss is about as worthwhile as worrying about who the real Pope is. It’s a figurehead position, ultimately. Damn fancy figurehead, but a figurehead.”
“But if I can align myself with the people running things. If Marc can persuade them to get my projects off the ground. I mean, do you think anyone cares about straight-to-video anymore? They don’t even have video anymore, man. What do you think they did with the DVD division a few years ago? They laid off 90% of them. That’s what’s going to happen to us. They’re not going to need execs like me anymore. I’m a dying breed. What am I gonna do? Sell used furniture on Ventura Boulevard like my old man?”
“I know why you’re worrying, Lewis. I’m just saying that you’re not making sense in doing so.”
"Why’d you bring me this far east?" shot back Lewis, "This is home to artsy-fartsy hipsters. We work five full miles away."
"Relax. The office thinks we’re meeting with the third male lead from Game Of Thrones for the action hero of your latest comic book pic. Nobody we know is going to come this way. I brought you here because this is creative country. There’s something about the artistic temperament in the people here that — very humanly, I might add — suggests that it’s OK to fail.
"I mean, they try something new, and, if it doesn’t work out, they move on. They don’t deal in opening weekends and thick contracts like we do," said Andy, "There’s no shame east of Vine."
Andy looked out the window. Some of the cars on Franklin were lining up to get on the freeway and, whether he was aware of it or not, Andy liked that kind of order. Because everyone gets to where they want to go in due time – sometimes slower, sometimes faster – no matter how many times they honk.
"Lewis," said Andy, "You got any kids?"
Andy sighed. "Got a dog?"
"What are you trying to get at, Andy?"
"What I’m trying to get at, Lewis, is the fact that you don’t really know what you’re talking about."
"Bullshit. Have you thought about this Pope situation for even a second, Andy? You’ve worked hard too, man. You’ve worked harder than I have. And you think that I don’t have a clue…”
"You don’t, Lewis. You just don’t. You think this is somehow all about you, that if someone is standing in your light, then it looks bad on you. Even when this top level shit with the new Pope comes up, you think it’s about you. Then you pickle yourself with expensive vodka and come to work looking like shit. And then you blame everyone else."
"Tequila. Gran Patrón."
"Whatever. The point is that this isn’t a conspiracy. Maybe your team didn’t win this time. Heck, maybe they’ll never win. Sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t. But sometimes you’ve just got to jump in the water and let it take you where it may, Lewis. You can’t keep fighting the current. That’ll kill you, in the end."
"Maybe I’m a salmon," said Lewis.
Andy paused to take a breath and a long thoughtful sip of coffee. He wondered if Lewis was perhaps rubbing off on him. Andy cleared his throat.
"I asked you to meet me here to try and drill it into your thick skull that you’re a functioning member of society. Not a salmon."
"Well," said Lewis, with a newfound tone of confidence perhaps born from talk of salmon, a subject he knew well because he grew up near Seattle, perhaps not. "Maybe I’m a salmon. Think about it. A Pacific Northwest Salmon. See, those salmon swim hundreds of damn miles to get back to where they were born. They overcome bears, dams, even the fucking otters, Andy. And they don’t stop swimming against the current until they get back to where they came from. And then they spawn. And then they die. There’s something noble about that. The noble salmon of the Pacific Northwest. Like me. I don’t know why you can’t see that."
"I thought you were from Philly?" said Andy.
"Well, yeah," said Lewis, "Via Seattle. Spent my teens there. Now I’m just kinda…" he snapped his fingers a couple of times, trying to find the right word.
"How’d you wind up in Hollywood?" asked Andy.
"Followed a girl. Didn’t work out. You know how it is."
Lewis tried to stifle a laugh. "People talk about how this town has no soul. And they’re right. It has no soul because it’s a fucking Frankenstein created by long-ago movie moguls. New York without the anger. London without the history. Ancient fucking Rome without the politics. A big come-fuck-me sprawl dominated by the entertainment industry. You forget where you are from if you stay here too long. It lulls you to sleep and you just simply forget that the rest of the world ever existed in the first place.
"But do you really want to know why I don’t like it here? Because nobody has any reason to leave. Look around. Why would you want to leave Hollywood? But Hollywood doesn’t care about you. It never has and it never will. Because falling in love with Hollywood is like falling in love with a beautiful woman who can’t remember your name."
Lewis paused. “And while I’m at it would it kill anyone here to read an entire fucking book once in a while and not just coverage?”
"Are you done?" said Andy.
"Did you like that?" said Lewis, admiring his just completed rant.
"Listen to yourself!" said Andy.
"I frequently do."
"I know you do," said Andy. "And that’s the problem. You don’t have anybody around to tell you you’re wrong. That’s how dictators get started. If you start wearing brown shirts to work I’m notifying HR. How old are you, anyway?"
"Christ on a bike," said Andy, "You’re 34? Could’ve pegged you for a decade older. You need to moisturize and exfoliate. Stuff an expensive salon or a good woman would teach you. Or a good man. I don’t know which way you swing. To be honest," Andy said, wiping his mouth with his napkin, "I don’t know that much about you personally at all."
"And I don’t know a lot about you," said Lewis, "Other than you have a picture on your desk of three kids…"
"Thought there were three."
"We didn’t come here to talk about me," said Andy, "We came here to talk about you. We…" Andy trailed off. He told himself on a weekly basis he should really get a new family photo. But it had been just five years since…
His mind kicked back like a car’s engine on a bad mount and suddenly he was in the hospital asking some poor nurse how the fuck a four-year-old could get bone cancer. There was a lump in his throat the size of an orange all of a sudden and he didn’t want anyone, let alone Lewis, to know about it.
He raised the coffee cup to his lips. Lewis continued.
“And you’ve spent the last 15 years in the same job."
"Seventeen years, actually," said Andy, quietly. "Been working at the same studio all that time."
Andy watched the lines of vehicles on Franklin. He focused on a green truck with out-of-state plates. He wondered why its occupants had made the trip. Probably tourists, he thought, since residents had to get new in-state plates within weeks of arriving. Andy signaled a passing busboy, a lanky kid with a weak chin and hair like a young Elvis. "Can we get some more coffee?"
"Sure," said the busboy. "Can I get you anything else?"
"Slice of blueberry pie," said Andy.
"OK. I’ll be back with that and the coffee," said the busboy then walked away.
"Thought you were a diabetic," said Lewis.
"I am," said Andy. "But the point still lingers, Lewis. You assume all the weight of the world. I know that, deep down, maybe I’m crazy to assume this, but deep down you really care about the movie business. You can’t hold such a grudge against the studio without conversely having, or at least having once had, hope in it," said Andy. "And besides, even weak men want to leave a legacy."
"Who wants to talk about legacy over shitty coffee?" Lewis barked.
"Don’t get defensive."
"You’re talking out of your ass again, Andy."
"All you have to do," said Andy, "is take stock in what you have. Not what you don’t have. Not what you may have. Because that breeds the thinking of what you think you should have."
"Right, fine, OK," said Lewis, "But you’re being…"
"Being what? Life is short. Life is too fucking short. And you’re getting mad about a new studio head? What right do you have? Do you think that should be you? Is that what’s going on here?"
"I’m just mad at where I am is all, Andy," said Lewis, leaning back in the booth again and now spreading his arm across the back of the seat, his fork still in his hand.
"If you want to get mad," said Andy, "Get mad at children with cancer."
"Those salmon that you love," said Andy, folding his napkin and placing it on the table, "They just live off of instinct. They swim until they’re close to death, they fuck, and then they die. And that’s it. There isn’t a damn thing poetic about living like that. You’re swimming against the current, fighting for some intangible happiness, and even if you get it, if you get the job or you close the deal or whatever, you’re going to die angry and exhausted. You aren’t, I can assure you, a fucking failure. By the very nature of us being allowed in the front door, nobody in that studio and especially not in our office is a failure. We’ve all worked our dicks off to get there. But none of that really matters, Lewis. Everything you ever do will get reduced to the head of a pin in the long run."
Lewis scratched his head. Those puppy dog eyes again. "I don’t get what you’re trying to say," Lewis said.
Andy leaned back in the booth. "You ever had a dream, Lewis?" said Andy.
"Ever been given something in a dream? Like, money?"
"When you woke up," said Andy, "did you get to keep it?"
"No," said Lewis.
"But did you remember the dream?"
"Yeah," said Lewis.
"That," said Andy, "Is kind of how life works."
The busboy came back with a fresh pot of coffee and a large slice of blueberry pie with a dollop of whipped cream on top. "We make the whipped cream in house," said the busboy, "Which means in the kitchen. It’s still good, though."
"Stay here," Lewis said to the waiter, "My friend was just saying something imp—"
"It’s not important, in the long run," said Andy, getting out his wallet and placing a twenty and two tens on the table. He took a deep breath and looked Lewis right in the eyes, "But I’ll tell you what is. Right now, all I want you to do, Lewis, is just think about the blueberry pie in front of you."
Andy pushed the plate with the slice in front of Lewis. "And leave a good tip when you go."
Andy knocked twice on the table, an old habit. "I should get back to work," he said, to nobody in particular. And with a smile and a nod to the busboy, Andy slid out his side of the vinyl booth and walked out the door. And then he was gone.
Lewis remained in his seat and the busboy stood there for a while as they both watched Andy walk to his car. "You guys looked like you were really into something deep," said the busboy. "I didn’t want to disturb you. Seemed important."
Lewis looked at the pie and the pot of coffee. "Did you hear they picked the new Pope?" said Lewis, almost under his breath.
"Sorry, didn’t hear you. What was that?"