A famous actor interrupts a studio meeting with a struggling scripter, first-time producer and inexperienced director. 2,871 words. Part One. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Most Hollywood executive offices are piled high with scripts, their titles magic-markered on the spines. But there were none in Bob Janse’s second floor office at the Wilhelm Brothers executive building. No framed movie posters from the studio’s movies. Not even a computer. The only phone was an old black rotary model, but the inconvenience of dialing didn’t matter to Janse. People called him. On the rare occasions when he returned a call – there were still five or six people more important than he was – his secretary handled the mechanics.
Shrewd and MBA-educated, he was given to vivid turns of phrase so that someone years ago had christened him “Sam Goldwyn with brains.” And however bitter and resentful they might be, the people he fired generally left with a quote or two to share with their next employers. No one wanted to be the target of Janse’s conversational ice-pick. But the group he had assembled in his office today was even more uneasy than usual. Because they were going to have to explain why they were proceeding with this misbegotten movie. Lenny Feinstein, Executive VP of Production, had brought the project to Dwight Goforth, Executive Vice President of Worldwide Production, who had just green-lighted a $125 million budget for a film written, produced and directed by unknowns.
They weren’t “hot off the film festival circuit” unknowns. They weren’t “music video and British TV ad” unknowns. They were just unknown.
The writer Jim Hotaling had scripted some episodic TV, the producer Mike Garth had worked for some Video on Demand outfit, and the director Bill Terhune who was the ringleader in this circus and hadn’t done anything except make friends with the world’s most famous and highest paid film star, Douglas Troy. The actor hated everyone so that was an accomplishment in and of itself. But perhaps not one sufficient to warrant a film budget for quite this many millions of dollars. The answer was simple and obvious: Troy wanted this director to make this film. That’s why Troy was at the meeting. Having Troy’s young actor sidekick Rick Haigley on the picture and in this confab wouldn’t hurt matters.
But now the bigger problem was Howard Rappaport, the studio’s veteran Executive Vice President for Theatrical Marketing, who’d made it clear that he couldn’t sell a picture about a father and son where the Dad was such an unredeemable pain in the ass. Plus, Rappaport hated time travel stories and thought the mob as the villain was “the kiss of death.” Rappaport was intractable. And the old man was often right. He had just started at Wilhelm forty years ago when he’d begged the top execs not to put Planet Wars into turnaround. Rappaport got his way, though without the merchandising and sequel rights he had begged the execs to take.
Rappaport and Feinstein had never liked each other and their jobs were fundamentally adversarial anyway. Janse looked around the room sourly because the fact was that no one here liked anyone else very much. He knew, for instance, that Roscoe Henderson leaning against the door jamb was the executive in charge of the production and wanted Feinstein’s job. And Feinstein wanted Goforth’s job and Goforth wanted to run the studio. And they all despised Rappaport who sneered at their flights of ego-fueled fantasy he had to make watchable for the general public. If this movie tanked as Janse was sure it would, all the executives would start blaming each other. If it succeeded, the three unknowns whom Troy had rounded up – and Troy himself, of course – would take the credit.
It was a shitty life, Janse knew, but it paid him well. And, truth be known, he enjoyed the silty currents of ambition and resentment and terror that churned just under the surface of these meetings. He liked seeing people at their worst because it made them easier for him to control.
At the far end of the office, Troy and Haigley were huddled together, talking quietly, trying their best to ignore everyone else. Well, let them have it, Janse thought. To him, stars were like the child emperors whose tantrums were lethal enough to decapitate any chef who didn’t put enough marshmallows in the hot chocolate. Which was why Troy always was given his Starbucks breakfast blend and Haigley always fresh violets.
Flatter and defer to the people with the gun – that was just common sense to Janse. When he was holding the gun, things were different. Janse was looking forward to redressing matters concerning the movie and its bloated budget with Troy’s three stooges this morning. When they finally showed up ten minutes late, the unknowns stood in the middle of the crowded office looking as uncomfortable as they obviously felt.
“Care to handle the formalities?” Janse asked, looking at Troy.
Troy introduced Bill and Jim and Mike around the room. Hands were shaken. But Mike and Haigley just stared at each other until finally Rick broke the silence. “Gotten laid yet?” Haigley asked.
“Very funny. I’m married, Rick,” Mike replied.
“I wasn’t invited. But I read about it in the trades.”
“That’s how I found out about both of your weddings.”
“But the articles about me were bigger, Bro” Haigley said.
“We’re not brothers,” Mike said automatically, to no one in particular.
Janse was sitting forward in his chair. Because this was a new level of tension that made normal business seem docile by comparison. Everyone moved away from the pair, as if expecting an actual fistfight.
But it didn’t happen. Instead, Roscoe stepped in. “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard,” he explained to Janse. “But these two guys are actually step-brothers. Mike’s Mom married Rick’s Dad even though there’d been bad blood between the families for a long time. Rick’s grandfather named names at the McCarthy hearings. Mike’s grandfather, a successful screenwriter at the time, was one of the names.”
“He went to jail,” Mike said quietly. “He refused to rat out his friends. And my mother never had the guts or the good sense to blow off Rick. She was a recovering alcoholic. Then she was a cancer patient. And now she’s dead. All right? So leave it alone.”
“Well, she would have been proud of you, faking your way in here,” Rick needled him. “So what’s the pecking order? Let me guess.” He pointed to Terhune. “Engine.” Then to Jim. “Passenger car.” Finally, to Mike. “Caboose. Am I right? I hope so because the word fits you perfectly.”
Janse interrupted. “Is this going to affect your working relationship?”
Mike answered too quickly, “Of course not.”
“We’re all professionals,” Terhunne added.
Haigley turned on the producer. “Oh really? What’s your profession? Breaking and entering? Office squatting? Or are you just a con man?”
Troy put his hand on Haigley’s arm. It seemed to be enough. But then Haigley raised his right arm one inch, his hand a stiff-fingered karate blade. The gesture was intended for Mike only, as was the malicious grin.
“Sure. He’s used to taking my shit. Aren’t you, Mike?”
“I’m out of practice.”
There were a few seconds of excruciating silence. Until Troy smiled.
Some stars seem like miniature versions of themselves when seen in real life. Troy was the opposite. At six foot three, he seemed even bigger than he was in the movies. And that smile was like shooting up something addicts were supposed to snort.
“I have some questions for Mike,” Troy said. “There are some things I have to feel confident about if he’s going to produce my picture. Do you have brand loyalty?”
“The things you buy. Do you care who makes them? Because I do. I judge people by their brand loyalties. We live in a world of products. Our choice defines us. Don’t you agree?”
“Well – “
“Coke or Pepsi? It’s a simple question.”
Mike hesitated. Would his answers determine whether or not their movie got made? He studied Troy’s humorless attentive face. They would. They definitely would. It was like playing Russian roulette. He put the barrel against his temple and squeezed the trigger.
Troy smiled. Click.
“Apple or PC?”
Another smile; another empty chamber. Click. Mike kept firings answers at Troy’s barrage. HP or Dell? Levi or Wrangler. BMW or Mercedes. Scotch or bourbon?”
“Lagavulin,” Mike answered truthfully.
“I love it. He’s probably broke but has the best Scotch in the fucking world in his house. Probably takes him all winter to drink it. This uyy is good.” Troy turned to Janse. “He’s OK. Now get on with it.”
“We’ve decided to go forward with the project,” Janse announced, “But under certain specific conditions. First of all, the budget will not exceed thirty million dollars, above and below the line. Any other figure discussed was fantasy. Even that amount means that Doug and Rick will have to take deferred salaries in return for a percentage of the first dollar gross. I jokingly asked them if they’d care to assume some of the liability if the picture doesn’t perform at the box office.” Janse paused. He lifted his eyebrows and smiled coldly. “They declined.”
“I’ll do it when Spielberg does,” said Troy.
“The writer, Mr. Hotaling, I’m sure you’re aware of the problems in your script. My staff had prepared extensive notes, but there’s no need for you to see them. They’re being forwarded to the guy doing the rewrite.”
Jim started to speak. “But the Writers Guild’s Basic Agreement gives me the right to the first revision and – “
Janse held up his hand. “You waived it. For the good of the project. You’ll still get a story credit, unless Mr. Rappaport prevails and the time travel and organized crime elements are eliminated. Please, Mr. Hotaling. Writers should be seen and not heard.”
Jim was left sputtering.
“Now, Mr. Garth: Your role as producer is going to be strictly limited. Casting, locations and all other production details, including the hiring of DPs, editors and technical crew, production design and even story boards as well as procuring licenses and permissions to shoot, will be the responsibility of the Executive in Charge of Production, Roscoe Henderson. And if you pay close attention to him, you’ll learn a great deal. Think of it as six semesters of film school in six weeks.”
Mike took a breath. “So will I have any authority on this shoot?”
“Roscoe will delegate as appropriate.”
Mike wanted to say something, but his mind was a blank. Janse then turned to Terhune.
“I have seen your USC student films. I liked them. Particularly the one where you more or less incited a riot. I spoke to some of your instructors. They all detested you. I find you entertaining but I have you safely outnumbered. However, I am not going to jeopardize this studio’s money by gambling that your current abilities equal your collegiate hubris. So I’ve hired a very competent director as insurance. He comes out of music videos. He’s not an artist. That may be his primary qualification.”
“The deal is that I’m directing the picture,” said Terhune, looking at Troy.
“No,” said Janse quietly. “The deal is you are directing the picture until you go one minute over schedule or ten cents over budget or I disapprove of your behavior, your style or the footage you’re shooting. If you do, you will be removed from the production. You will be paid in full, of course. Once again, you’ll be waiving any privileges guaranteed by your Directors Guild’s Basic Agreement. I need all three of your paperwork signed in triplicate by the end of the day. I think we understand each other. And I have another meeting.”
“Bob.” Troy spoke, a resonant whisper that jerked the room into panic. One word, but it felt like a gun shot. ”This isn’t going to work, Bob.”
“What exactly are you – “
Troy spoke softly into the wary silence of the big room. “Do you understand what a partnership is? Not a set of legal protocols and binding agreements between greedy fucks who can’t trust each other without the threat of litigation. But an actual partnership. My father was a police officer. Did you know that? He and his partner covered each other’s ass. Not their own – each other’s. If you attacked my Dad’s partner, you were attacking my Dad. And that was a bad idea, Bob.”
Troy laid a massive arm over Terhune’s shoulder. “This man is my partner.” Troy waved his other hand at Jim and Mike. “These men are his partners. Attack them and you attack me. Do you want to attack me, Bob?”
“I’m not attacking anyone,” Janse said, exasperated. ‘I’m just trying to get a movie into production with reasonable safeguards. These people are first time filmmakers. We have no guarantee – “
“They’re artists,” Troy said.
“We’re talking about millions of dollars here,” Janse insisted.
“I’m not going to argue with you. I’m going to explain the way things are,” Troy continued. “First of all, Roscoe is going to help Mike in any way he can, but he’s not making any decisions. Second, no one is rewriting the script on this picture. It doesn’t need to be rewritten. It’s just fine the way it is. Finally, no one is replacing Bill Terhune. If he goes over budget, you’re going to pay the extra money. If he goes over schedule, you’re going to wait. And you’re not going to see one frame of film until he’s ready. This movie isn’t going to be made by committee and it’s not going to be made by studio executives. Because if you break just one of these rules, then I’m off the picture and Rick is off the picture. Now I’m late for lunch and you have another meeting and these three are starting pre-production today.”
Janse smiled and stood. “There’s no need to get upset,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be able to work this out to everyone’s satisfaction.”
After the meeting, Terhune returned to the pre-production offices with Mike and Jim and paced the hallway with vindicated joy. “Did you see that?” he kept saying, striding over to Mike for a quick painful bear hug. “Did you see what Doug did?”
Mike and Jim were still too stunned to give the director the ecstatic response that he wanted.
“Why don’t you two just yank your heads out of your asses for a second and look around," Terhune barked. "We’re the future of Hollywood and Troy knows it. If he has to push around some studio flunkies to protect us, so what? That’s fucking fun for him.”
“I wouldn’t call Bob Janse a studio flunky,” said Jim. He was looking out the window, moving his eyes from the big water tower at one endof the lot to the dusty hills that rose behind it. I’d call him a studio mogul.”
Terhune’s mimicty was cruel and prcise. You heard Janse. ‘I’m sure we’ll be able to work this out to everyone’s satisfaction.’ What a pussy.”
“So this is Troy’s project now?” Mike asked.
“You’re goddamn right it is! Lucky for us. Don’t believe everything you read in the tabloids. Troy is one of the good guys. He rolled over those execs like an eighteen wheeler hitting a jack rabbit. They’re road kill. And for one reason: so I can direct Jim’s script the way he wrote it.”
Mike shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
”Why do you think he did it?”
“No, tell me.”
“All right. I think he did it because it’s what he likes to do. He wasn’t sticking up for us. He was humiliating Janse. We were the excuse. Just be careful.”
“Doug’s an artist. So am I. That’s what people like you and Janse don’t understand.” That was always Terhune’s last resort, Mike knew. When all else failed, the director invoked the ascendancy of the talented over the merely well-organized. Mike had no answer to that.
“Well, I hope you and Troy make lots of movies and have a wonderful career together,” Mike said finally. “You’re obviously soulmates.”
Mike didn’t argue any more. He knew he was lucky to be working on a studio film. And, so far at least, Troy had secured it for them. He had ridden to their rescue like the cavalry in an old movie. And Mike’s judgment of people wasn’t flawless. He often became good friends with people he had disliked when he first met them. Maybe he’d become friends with Troy. But that felt like a long shot. Then there was Rick to deal with. He was a star and Mike was a nobody. Mike’s only real option was to ignore the toxic swirl of personalities and get on with his job.
“How bad can it possibly get?” he asked himself that evening, driving home from the studio over the Sepulveda pass, away from the smog and heat of the Valley. It was a rhetorical question. If he had asked Troy instead, the actor would have grabbed Mike around the shoulders, dazzled him with that $10 million grin and said, “Excellent question.”