The screenwriter is made a shocking offer she can’t refuse. Continued from Part One. 3,094 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Hours later I lay awake on Corie’s couch thinking about the good night’s rest I can’t seem to manage. I flip on the television set scanning channels, but it only leaves me feeling agitated. I stop on the E! Network to watch the story of legendary producer Robert Evans, who gave us Love Story, The Godfather, and many others. I’m consoled by the battles he had to endure to get his movies made. His persistence and risk-taking paid off and I hope someday mine will, too. I flip some more, this time to AMC, playing Gone With The Wind. I watch as Scarlett O’Hara stands defiant and determined to survive. Magically I’m mesmerized, as if seeing it for the first time as opposed to the forty-sixth.
I calm down, reminding myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. My father inspired a love of movies in me. Films offer strength and courage, provide life’s lessons, spark laughter, elicit tears, and create the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself, experiencing the vicissitudes of someone else’s journey, which helps you appreciate your own. I exhale and settle into a remedy of escape from my own problems in total solidarity with Scarlett.
It’s 8:00 am when Corie graciously drops me off at the mechanic’s shop. The first thing that Joseph tells me is that he’s got this cousin in the San Fernando Valley with a production company who’s always looking for good scripts. “I gave him your script last night. He thinks you’re a talented writer,” says Joseph.
“He does? He read it in one night?”
“Yeah. He wants to meet you. Go see him. You can pay me back in a month.” Joseph hands me my car keys, a bill reduced to a thousand dollars and the address to the Accent Film Company.
While I say goodbye to Corie, she lets her feelings about my boyfriend Gavin slip out again. “I still don’t see why he can’t help you get a writing job, or even a job. He manages the star of a hit TV show.”
“It’s not his job to get me a job, Corie.”
We’ve been through this before.
“Yes, it is,” she says. “You’ve just been around too many creeps and you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be with someone who really cares about you.”
“Gavin cares,” I say. “He’s just busy taking care of his own business.”
“But you are his business so stop defending him,” she exclaims, then softens. “Look, don’t worry. Things change.”
I forced an ephemeral smile before she drives off, thinking about the power of those two words. That would be a good theme for a story, I think. But why write anymore?
I’m beginning to think the universe is sending me a message and maybe I should listen. Though not writing would be the equivalent of not breathing. Words strung together to make images are my oxygen.
I thank Joseph profusely and without delay head north to the valley. The 405 Freeway is jammed. I’ve never heard of the Accent Film Company. Must be an independent, I think; after all, when I worked at STA, I only dealt with production companies that were part of the studio system. Maybe this is a good time to call STA again.
You’d think after all my time at STA as Eric Leve’s assistant, I’d know the best time to phone. Ah, the phones. When not answering them, I was typing phone sheets, deal memos, cover letters, filing, organizing, opening mail, taking notes, handling personal errands and enduring the mood swings of the ambitiously insecure. And I did get to exercise some creative writing skills. Whenever Eric was running late to meet his newlywed wife, which was always, he’d ask me what to do to pacify her. I came up with a litany of romantic gestures, going so far as to prepare midnight picnic baskets for him loaded with wine, berries, caviar, massage oils, romance classics on DVD along with one-page love essays relating the theme of the movie to his love for her. He gave me carte blanche on his credit card and I subsequently became well versed in the finer things. When his wife found out that I was the one who was orchestrating the scenes and penning the love essays, it all came to an abrupt end. She wanted those words and actions to come from him, but when he tried to write down his feelings or think of passionate scenarios on his own it was clear he didn’t have a single romantic gene in his body. Their marital bliss soon began to disintegrate, which was evident during his morning greetings; satiated smiles replaced by frustrated scowls. This led me to taking exorbitant amounts of coffee breaks, which in turn led me to develop relationships with other agents and agent trainees who could provide information on demand.
I call STA and ask for Charlie Roberts, the sole agent in charge of independent film companies. Alas, Charlie is out of the office and his assistant is a temp who’s never heard of the Accent Film Company. I am left to wing this meeting without any prep and to wonder on my own who the principals are, and what kind of movies they like to make.
Joseph did say his cousin liked my screenplay. Maybe this would be my chance to finally get my screenplay made, restore my personal vows, and make my father proud. After all, movies represented for me an important connection to my father, podiatrist by day and avid moviegoer by night.
He loved movies and instilled the same in me. It didn’t matter whether it was Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry or Sean Connery as James Bond. For me, it was about sitting next to my father with a tub of buttered popcorn and getting swept away.
Sociologists describe the phenomenon of movie watching as “group dreaming,” a time and place when members of a society adhere together as they gather in the dark to share an experience. My family bonded over movies in the theaters of suburban Detroit. In the dark, with popcorn and lemonade, we shared in the compassion of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, in the adventures of Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz, the revelations of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, and countless others. The ritual as we transitioned out of the group-dreaming phenomenon occurred as the film’s credits rolled and my father invariably announced his rating of the movie on a scale from one to ten.
“I give it an eight,” he’d say, and that would be that, the full summation of his critique in five words.
If my father, child of the depression era, represented an escapist’s view of film, it was my cultured mother, a classical pianist and drama major, that inspired the critical thinking aspect. This was evidenced by a mandatory discussion initiated by her after my parents took my siblings and me to see Summer Of ’42 before either of them had read the reviews.
My older brother Bennett, 14 at the time, displayed latent homosexual tendencies and saw no reason to discuss the hetero sex scenes. Instead he predicted that saddle shoes would soon come back into vogue. My 12-year-old sister, Ann, was shocked by the adolescent boys’ immature and clumsy approach to sex. Even though she was one year older than me, her life experience had begun with instant familial bliss whereas I had been jilted upon birth, spending my first three weeks alone and touch deprived inside a sterile incubator, my tiny hands locked in fists fighting to survive.
It’s no wonder I found the film riveting, intrigued by how that one tender sensual encounter of love and loss had changed Hermie forever. To be touched and transformed was what I was after, or so I thought. I found myself determined to connect and inspire through movies. But so far, while my efforts accumulated industry accolades in the form of verbal praise, my bank account accumulated personal debt. I hoped this might be the chance to turn it all around…
Cliff Peterson, tall, handsome, thin, in jeans and a pressed T-shirt, sits behind a glass desk. An air of intense sexuality lingers around him. I see no ring on his finger, and can’t help but wonder if he’s single. The guy exudes sexy, yet too sexy, almost too hot to handle.
“Sorry I can’t offer you a cup of coffee. We’re expanding our space and moved into these offices last week. We haven’t unpacked all of our boxes yet.”
As the producer of the Accent Film Company peruses my resumé, I sit attentively across from him carefully studying his office. Black leather chairs tell me he likes comfort with style. State-of-the-art DVD player and huge hi-definition flat-screen monitor all haphazardly lie on the floor. No art on the walls. I assume it’s also yet to be unpacked. I deduce that I don’t have enough information to make a valid deduction about anything.
“I’m impressed,” he says. “You’ve got experience working with the studios. Writing awards. Represented by STA. I’ve heard of them.”
That should have been my first clue, but his sultry voice distracted me.
He tosses my resumé to the side and looks straight at me.
“You’re a great writer — and I want to elevate the work around here. I want better stories, better plots, better characters. I want my movies to have meaning with all kinds of romance and broad appeal.”
“Something for the whole family?” I naively ask.
“That’s only overseas. They’re much more liberal over there.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I didn’t have time to figure it out. He kept going. “Do you have any risky romances you’re working on right now?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Tell me one,” he says. That’s when the workmen enter carrying huge frames of artwork.
“Where do you want us to hang your movie posters?” one of them asks.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Cliff inquired. I shake my head no, grateful for the interruption that gives me a chance to flex my writing brain for a story idea.
“Just spot them evenly across the walls,” Cliff tells the workmen. “And be gentle, those represent my best movies.”
The two guys then turn the frames around to reveal Cliff ’s prized cinematic moments.
My jaw drops and my purse hits the floor. I quickly feign a cough to cover my shock as I scan titles and graphics.
Austin Prowler, The Kissing Match, Under Dressed, Something About Mary & Ann, Biker Babes, Memoirs Of A Lady, and Strap On Molly. Holy shit.
I reach for my open purse and its contents of overdue bills and termination notices lying scattered on the floor. I scoop them up glancing between them and the porn posters. Thinking. Thinking. Cliff looks at me, clearly waiting for my answer. I’m thinking fast but drawing blanks so I go for the broad plot description.
“It’s a love story inside a love story with a twist.”
But he waits for more. Obviously, he’s not one to explore three-act structures or the virtues of Aristotle’s Poetics. That’s when I notice the framed photograph on his desk of two pretty women, arms wrapped around each other, smiling for the lens. They look like good friends; maybe they’re Cliff ’s sisters. Who knows? But for me right now, they have just turned into lovers and the protagonists of my embryonic story.
“Well, it’s about two women,” I tell Cliff. “They’re deeply in love with each other but then one wants to leave the relationship, to, uh…”
I glance at the women in the photo again wondering if the person behind the camera taking the photograph is a man — perhaps it’s Cliff. What if one of the women finds herself attracted to him and becomes confused about her sexuality?
“To, uh, explore her heterosexuality because she’s, um, she’s never been with men before,” I say, sneaking another peek at the image, knowing I need to throw in some drama, wondering what her lover would do to create conflict.
Manna drops from the heavens and I’ve got it.
“Her lover’s devastated,” I continue. “So she hires a guy to date her now ex-lover, and then dump her so she’ll come back. That’s the basic premise.”
Cliff sits still, thinking about it. Moments pass. “I like it,” he states. “I like it a lot. What’s the title?”
“The title? Um, the title is…Things Change. It’s a working title.”
“I only pay five hundred for a script. A thousand on a rare occasion.”
I’m shocked. “Guess you’re not a signatory to the Writers Guild.” He gives me a funny look. “It’s okay. I’m not in the union… yet,” I quickly add.
“Since your writing is exceptional and you owe my cousin a grand for the transmission job, I’d be willing to pay a little more,” he says in that sultry voice.
“Isn’t this the part where you’re supposed to negotiate with my lawyer?” I ask. Not that I have a lawyer. Scott Sher never got around to that referral.
Cliff dismisses the statement, asking, “How fast can you write?”
“How fast do you need it?”
“Five days. Four would be better. We start production in ten.”
He must be out of his mind. No one writes a screenplay in five days.
“That’s doable,” I say, wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. I know I’m fast once I’ve got a story down but this would be world record-breaking time. I’ll have to bury myself in my apartment and chug caffeine around the clock. “Is a director attached?”
“Me,” he says.
I glance at my bills. Adding up all that I owe, I decide to risk it. “Okay. I’ll do it for twenty-five hundred including one rewrite, but if you want a second rewrite or a polish it will cost a thousand more.”
Okay, so at least I remember how to structure payment fees for writing assignments thanks to all those deal memos I typed for Eric Leve.
Cliff gives me another funny look, as if he’s never heard these terms before. I’m thinking he must be a really bad poker player or a really good one.
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll give you a thousand now and fifteen hundred more if you can deliver me a script in four days. Here’s a sample DVD to look at in case you need to study the formula. Bottom line — make sure you give me a lot of romance.”
“What about your business affairs department? Aren’t they going to contact my lawyer to draw up a contract?” I ask with trepidation, wondering if this might kill the deal since he hasn’t brought it up.
He smiles and holds out his hand. We shake.
“There’s your contract.” He pulls out his checkbook, writes a check out to me for one thousand dollars and hands it over. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” I turn to go then stop myself. “I forgot to ask you about sequel rights.”
“If it sells over 100,000 units, you can have sequel rights. But just so you know, we’ve never made a sequel before.”
“Units?” I ask. That’s a new term on me.
“Straight-to-DVD talk,” he says.
“Oh.” Then, I remember the most important question of all, as other deal memos come to mind.
“What about a back-end deal?” I ask, before I realize I’ve made a faux pas, or a pun, depending on how it’s received. “I mean, a percentage of the royalties in case the movie’s a hit,” I quickly say.
“Very cute,” he chuckles. “No back-end deals on straight to DVD.”
“Do I get sole screenplay credit?”
“You can have it.”
I’ve never heard of a production company not hiring writers to rewrite the work of other writers. Where am I?
“Turnaround rights?” It’s my last question. Turnaround represents purgatory for any screenplay if the studio decides not to make the movie. The script can languish on a shelf until it literally disintegrates.
Cliff looks at me with a blank expression on his face.
“If you decide not to use the screenplay,” I explain, “can I buy back the right to sell it somewhere else at the same cost you spent to have me write it?”
“Sure. But I always make the screenplays I commission. When you come back I’ll give you the grand tour of the offices, editing bays, stages, and warehouse. Right now I’ve got a shoot to go to. Good luck with the writing.”
What just happened out here in the deep, deep valley? I couldn’t believe how straightforward getting this writing job could be, compared to studio deals. No battle. No posturing. No paperwork. No agents. No lawyers. No commissions. And no sexual passes. Yesterday morning I lost two deals and an agent. Today, I had a go movie with a director attached and a guaranteed production start date before I touched the keyboard. Life was weird, I thought, and yet, I had no idea just how weird it was about to get.
Who am I? That’s what I wonder whenever I begin to reflect on the strange course of events that led to my standing before five porn stars in an acting class I organized in an attempt to do justice to my dialogue, to speaking to an audience of swingers at a Holiday Inn banquet room for the ostensible purpose of making sex education videos, or to sitting in a limo negotiating my own four-picture X-rated writing deal. Every time I ask myself, “Who am I?” and “How did I get here?”, I try to find some semblance of meaning in what was to be an otherwise ordinary but honorable life. I just didn’t know my own odyssey to tell stories would become the story I would tell, but here it is, a naked truth, a life of good intentions… uncovered.
A few weeks later, there was a message from Scott Sher waiting for me at home on my answering machine. He had called as part of his twelve-step program to make amends for his past wrongs.
“You’re my one hundredth call. I just wanted you to know that I never did make a deal for your script The Law Of Malus and, well, I hope it didn’t screw you up.”
For Part One, click here.