A screenwriter has scripted a war but finds himself battling the producer’s wife for control. 4,197 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Roy Baker Kane didn’t think he was going to get the job and he didn’t really want it. So when he finally forced himself to hear his agent tell him live and in person that they had passed on his take and gone with another writer, Roy wasn’t particularly disappointed. But he was annoyed. He had put the time in and had tried. It had been interesting to sketch solutions to the perceived problems they had with the existing script, and going to the studio to meet with all those motion picture-related functionaries — producers and co-producers and story editors — had been stimulating.
But now there would be no summer trip to Spain unless something else materialized quickly. And without “work,” Roy would be forced to actually write something real and meaningful. He thought about diving in and doing some writing on his childhood memoir, that he had interrupted to go after the unspeakably stupid studio train wreck he had just been denied.
He checked the time. Go to the gym, do some hard time on the elliptical trainer, then take an hour and a half with the laptop and a cup of coffee. Get back to work. Real work. On something that meant something to him personally, creatively, if not financially. Fuck all those idiots in the room at the studio. The movie would be bad just like most of the others these days. His destiny would not be tied to some Friday at the Cineplex with that piece of shit. Just fine really. Onward and onward. Downward and upward. Back to his true unconscious, his true self on the page where he belonged, where he ought to be anyway.
“What ever happened to Peloponnesia?” asked Julian Renfield, an infinitely thin, youngish, always fashionably overdressed, shrewd, mean motion picture producer with a sarcastic sense of humor which he was not exercising now. He was deadly serious. But Roy Baker Kane didn’t look up from his noodle bowl to notice.
“It fell to the Athenians in 400 B.C.”
“I mean your screenplay, the masterpiece Paramount wouldn’t let me buy.”
“They would have bought anything you took there. You passed because you thought you couldn’t sell it.”
“Whatever. So what happened to it?”
“Harley Grace owns it.”
“Which piece of the map did he fall off of?”
“I don’t have any idea.”
“It’s a great script.”
“Yeah. It may be one of the good ones. Sure.”
Before the end of the day, Roy’s motion picture agent played with multicolored paper clips on her desk and watched emails whiz on her iPhone as she decided whether or not to tell Roy the good news. “Julian really likes Peloponnesia.”
“Great. Suggest that he take his family there for the holiday break.”
“Julian wants to make your movie.”
“It’s not my movie. It’s Harley Grace’s movie.”
“You worked with Harley a lot. Call him. You have a relationship with him.”
Roy tried to remember how many months had passed since he had last left a message on Harley’s machine. At least six months. And before that? He calculated that his calls had gone unanswered at least 10 times over the past three years. After the second unreturned message, it didn’t matter. Roy knew he had already crossed the edge of good Hollywood etiquette. Another try was fine. He could pretend it was all a joke now. Very funny.
Roy was at work on his little boy story when he thought again of Peloponnesia, of Harley Grace, the epic that never was, of the heavy lifting that never materialized, of the spineless bureaucrats of Hollywood past, present and future who were no good for heavy lifting. Ever.
Check email. Listen to the dog snore. Walk away. More coffee. No. Get back
to the little boy story. It was a good one. Sure it was. Why not? But instead, Roy put his headset on, dialed the phone, calling Hollywood once again to try and move one piece into the puzzle on the endless jigsaw landscape on the three-legged table that held each project in development. It was a miracle. Three-legged tables standing on their own. Was the fourth leg invisible? Was it really there but just a magic leg? Or was the table just able to stand there balancing until all the pieces of the puzzle were in place and, miraculously or demonically, the picture on the puzzle face would be projected on silver screens all across the world and on home entertainment systems and computers and tablets and on airplanes and all the other places where these imagined dramas could be consumed, enjoyed, absorbed, ingested, carefully viewed? Roy was tired of all these intricate puzzles that he had labored over. He didn’t care if anybody ever read what he was writing now. At least he could finish it. And call it his. He would edit and he would take advice on the piece but he would finish it himself.
But the Hollywood forest glistened in the distance. There was money in that forest. Fame. Notoriety. He was a screenwriter. And screenwriters wrote screenplays that were made into movies. Roy loved movies. Other people’s more than his own. But he always hoped that someday one of his scripts would become something great. It still happened.
Not often. But it could happen. Why not? And the time investment of this game, not counting the writing and the meeting, was minimal. You made a call. You waited for a return call. You spent five minutes on the phone. And perhaps you fit another small piece into the puzzle.
And maybe that piece would be the one that would allow you to throw 40 more pieces on the table in the right places. Certain pieces created momentum that way. And once in a while, the fourth leg miraculously appeared on a table. There was some solidity. A strong wind could still blow all the pieces off the table. But you could hope for good weather. There were stretches of nice weather around here.
So Roy dialed Harley Grace’s office number. The machine answered. Just like the last time.
“This is Roy Baker Kane. Just checking in with Harley. Wondering if anything’s happening with Peloponnesia? Maybe we could get some coffee or something? Hope you’re doing well.”
When Lorna dressed Mr. Harley in a tie and jacket, he tended to behave better in town. He would sit like a gentleman at the fiberglass table in front of the Premium Market and sip his espresso from a paper cup and nod genially to passersby once in a while. His wingtips grounded him. He never wandered off. However, if she left him there in sweats and cross-trainers, Mr. Harley would go off. He stayed out of traffic but he might wander anywhere and he might shoplift. He called it shopping. He was good at it.
But in his Brioni blazer, Mr. Harley stayed still and never put anything in his pocket that would break the line of the outfit. He didn’t know who he was anymore, but Mr. Harley still liked to be well-tailored. He would gaze at his cut creases and nod approvingly. But he wouldn’t answer to his own name.
“I am Cleon,” he noted to Lorna as she put one sugar into his paper cup of espresso.
Lorna stirred the coffee and made herself smile. He had told her to address him as Cleon once or twice before, but she had purposely let it go. This time it seemed very important. He seemed convinced that he was Cleon now, whoever that was.
“Here is your espresso, Cleon. The way you like it.”
“Thank you, Nicostratus. I will always cherish you.”
“And I will always cherish you, Cleon.”
“The sun is high.”
Lorna decided to play this game with conviction. He seemed to crave that. So what the hell — she would give the man his playtime the way he wanted it.
“Yes, Cleon. The sun is high. You will wait for the warriors here, as you promised.”
“Yes, Nicostratus. I will wait for the warriors here, as I vowed.”
Lorna took the croissant out of the bakery bag and placed it on top in case Mr. Harley wanted a few bites. She rushed into the market to do the weekly shopping as Cleon sat regally in his Brioni blazer, sipped his espresso, took a bite of his croissant and watched the horizon beyond the parking lot and the dry cleaners in fixed expectation of the arrival of his tribe of warriors.
Cleon decided to pass. He would take the parking lot in turnaround and set it up at Sony. Cleon had made a picture with Julia Roberts at Sony. And the parking lot would be perfect for her. Sony would make him hire another writer. So fuck those assholes at Warner’s once and for all. The parking lot would go to Sony. And they would have to give him his old deal at Sony. Real gross. Cleon knew he was a real gross warrior. Warner’s never understood the parking lot anyway. They never believed.
Cleon believed fervently in this parking lot. Forever and ever. The Athenian fleet would arrive in the bay any day now. The foot soldiers would be here soon. The Corinthians could be outflanked. The dry cleaners. The shirts. His shirts. No more stains. Nicostratus would return and they would go off and gaze into the valley. The thousand warriors would be marching from the mountain now. Cleon would address them. There would be a feast — a festival — with Ahi salad. And Merlot. Saint Helena Merlot ‘99. Nicostratus would see to all the details.
There would be no parking lot if it were not for Cleon. Back in the day, it was nothing but earth. And now look. Cleon would reign indisputably. A good and wise general — a worthy leader of men. Beloved. And rich. Very, very rich.
Lorna pushed a cart full of bagged groceries toward him. “Come on, Cleon. Let’s walk over to the dry cleaner. Do you want the rest of your croissant?”
Cleon nodded solemnly. They strolled back to the Range Rover together. Cleon waited obediently as Lorna popped the rear door open.
“You want to put them in, Cleon? Very nice, Cleon. You do that very, very well.”
Harley’s drift away from his old self had been a long ordeal. Covering it up and managing all the complex little matters Harley normally handled had taken it out of Annibelle. She tried to handle it gracefully. She left all the babysitting to Lorna, preserving a semblance of well-being to her mostly distant relationship with the man who was still her husband of record. Half a widow, Annibelle pined for more but could never imagine a scenario for herself that seemed just right. No man could or would replace Harley for the time being. She would soldier on, hope for the best, expect the worst.
Annibelle watched the number 11 blink on Harley’s answering machine. Screenwriting. Screenplays. Hollywood writers. What’s the point? thought Annibelle. She used to think they were all whores but now she understood. They actually believe in their drafts, in the power of the movies. What is wrong with them? Why do they bother? Harley could be so gracious and kind to them. He’d fight for them sometimes.
But most of the time, he talked about them like they were shit and treated them like they were the shit of shit. If shit could shit. And yet they proliferated. Every time she went to get a latte, there they were with their laptops and their notebooks and their eyeglasses. And they all looked like a cross between James Joyce and some homeless man. Some of them made lots of money. They were the worst. Words for sale. Will work you for work. Rewrite anything. No courage. All breathless and exalted. And Harley still had all these damn projects and Annibelle had let the development girl, excuse me, the development person, go. So Annibelle now was supposed to take the calls and manage what was left of Harley’s slate. And what a slate it was: Korean horror remake, Peloponnesian war, Bertolucci-esque love story. And three bad, bad bestsellers.
Annibelle hated it the most when studio executives called. Best to ignore them. Better to call Roy Baker Kane back, finally. He sounded human.
She’d met him once, had found him handsome and likeable. Only problem — she was married to Harley, and Roy whatever whatever is a screenwriter. So forget it.
“Hello. This is Annibelle Grace.”
“Oh, thanks for calling me back.”
“I’m so sorry. Everything has been so insane. Harley likes to return these calls himself. But finally, before he left for London, he asked me to return your call.”
“Making a picture?”
“I just called to see if anything was going on with Peloponnesia.”
“Oh, that’s your script? It’s great.”
“Thanks. Anything happening? Last I heard, John Woo was going to read it.”
“I’ll have to look into it. Harley will know.”
“Any chance I could see Harley for a coffee?”
“I’m not exactly sure when he’s coming back. But I’m certain Harley would love to see you.”
He sounded kind of nice. It occurred to her to have coffee with him. But she would have to read that script before she could do that. Trying to remember the title — Pellop-something — as she scanned the massive bookshelf with all the rows and rows of screenplays … hundreds of thousands of man hours of creative writing paid for at very high hourly rates — untouched for years, gathering dust. She found Peloponnesia.
There were 17 drafts. She pulled out the last script, dated eight years earlier. She stuffed it into her bag. She resolved to fight her way through the pages and start to give Harley’s projects serious effort. He had loved this script. He even declared in a moment tempered by very high quality Merlot that it could be a Best Picture for him. She wondered if she bought Harley a fake Oscar whether he’d believe he’d won it if she told him he had, or whether he’d even remember what an Oscar was.
She opened it. What was this, a sci-fi Western in ancient Greece? She kept thumbing through the script, scanned bits of dialogue, passages of description, found it very visual. It was ancient history. But it felt so immediate. She turned to the first page. She decided she was really going to read this and take this one seriously. Harley had given her the mandate to deal with his motion picture stuff, whether she knew anything about movies or not.
Roy Baker Kane knew Harley Grace had already fucked him over six times. He had to talk to Harley, or at least meet with his wife, Annibelle, and negotiate a win-win, open the door to an arrangement with Julian. He wondered if Julian would keep him around for one pass on the script and then bring in another writer. For Peloponnesia. It wasn’t about the money directly. A deal would be nice. But this was for his life. Peloponnesia was highly original. It was a surprisingly strong script. Directors responded to it. Actors responded to it. It would be a great movie. The best Roy Baker Kane had ever been involved with. Unfortunately, it was on the sideline, marooned in the nicest section of Beverly Hills with Annibelle Grace.
He would only stay on this project if everybody wanted him to stay. Julian could get the movie made. Harley would still get his producer credit. But Julian would do all the heavy lifting. Roy got excited again. He thought about Peloponnesia as a movie. HIS movie. Roy didn’t want to mess this up. Roy needed this. Roy rolled into the grandiose fantasy widescreen.
Then he plummeted.
Those blank and dour faces of all the pretty or handsome or truly ugly studio executives he had been around over the past few years skipped quickly across his brain. Faster and faster, until he drove that nasty little tape out of his head. He was a slave to Peloponnesia. He had to do what was best for it, take action if possible. He decided to make his way to Beverly Hills in gentle pursuit of the rights to his screenplay. He would schmooze without prejudice because his cause was true and just and important for his world.
Harley had finished what he wanted of that day’s Nicoise Salad and sat at the kitchen table with his own cup of coffee. “Roll calls,” Harley Grace commanded of Lorna with one toe out of the ether. It had been a while since they had played this game but she understood the rules. She handed Harley the phone headset and helped him fix it onto his head. She then took the real portable phone in her hand and sat down at the opposite end of the table. Harley was an important commander of the Athenian army. She would call generals and he would bark orders into the headset. The kind of things she had heard him saying to agents and studio executives and writers and managers in those days when he had been mindful and businesslike, active and successful in the movie business.
“We’re going to pass.”
“I want it.”
“What kind of deal are they looking for?”
“This is the best read I’ve had all year. Really.”
So Lorna played the game. She called out names she fabricated that sounded like movie business people. And Mr. Harley, or Cleon — as he often referred to himself — would have imaginary conversations. Brief. Militaristic. Nonsensical.
Roy thought it would be a mistake to meet with Annibelle Grace. She probably didn’t have the authority to do anything and this would muddy the water with Harley. He remembered being introduced to her once at a screening at the Academy. She had looked good. Nice hair. Well-maintained bod. Perfect white skin and eyes that flashed with promise. Roy decided to shift gears. He had nothing to lose. The screenplay would sit inactive until Harley turned to dust, whether Roy burned this bridge or not. Perhaps Annibelle Grace wanted to play producer with him. So let the games begin. He would attempt to involve her in the process, to make something, anything, happen with his project.
A week later, Roy sat across from Annibelle Grace at a French café on the Sunset Strip.
She found Roy Baker Kane to be alluring. Kind of fun. A little more rustic, a little less wealthy, than what she usually settled for in men. But he seemed kind and principled, not a bullshit artist.
“You really care about the script, don’t you?”
“I’ve written lots of screenplays that didn’t work. Once in a while, I do something right.”
“And you have to fight for it.”
“Are we fighting?”
“I’m trying to be really tough with you.”
“You’re succeeding. Way to go, Annibelle.”
“You’re mocking me.”
“I mock everybody — including myself.”
“I’m just trying to protect my husband’s interests.”
“Can I meet with him briefly?”
“Then you can act definitively on his behalf?
Roy sat back, decided to shut up. Tears welled up in her eyes. She turned away, shut them, forced the tears back. Roy studied Annibelle. He knew what he wanted her to do. And, with certainty, he identified the conflict she carried and assumed that he was not going to be the person who could ever tell her what to do. He could reason with her, plead his case, but ultimately, she was not going to be a pushover.
Harley was probably sitting in some hut high on a mountain in Tibet.
Harley hardly drank. He gave up drugs before he turned 30. He exercised regularly, never over-ate. If he had been ill, wouldn’t that have been whispered around town? So what the hell is this? Annibelle knows Harley would never let go of a project. How could she possibly let go of it for him? So Roy decided to step sideways with her. Roy was sure that Annibelle had not seen Harley sell many things during his tenure.
She was pulling a pack of Kleenex out of her purse now. Roy had noticed the tears welling in her eyes, wondered if it was an allergy or the real thing. Perhaps Annibelle Grace was involved in her own tragedy. However, it was not the one that Roy wanted to care about right now. He had his own sad drama to tend. He had waited three weeks to drive across town in thick traffic to sit with this woman and watch her start to cry. And now Peloponnesia was beside the point. It’s all about her story now.
Roy started to back away mentally from his quest. He noticed how Annibelle was backlit by the harsh sun, how her face was in shadow, with a muted gleam in her turquoise green eyes that was passionate and fresh, not sad and dark. She was wiping away tears now. Roy noticed that her wedding ring wasn’t that big. And the setting was platinum. Vintage Harley Grace style. She had pretty hands. Delicate, long fingers. With a fleshy-colored nail polish that was almost invisible. He glanced at her long, outstretched legs. A sexy beige sandal dangled from the top of her foot.
Annibelle tightened her grasp on the Kleenex. “Harley just takes off on his own. He’s always done that. This time he just went a little further than usual.” She reached into her leather bag and pulled out his script. Roy felt a painful little twinge in his stomach as he saw words scribbled all over the cover page. A woman’s handwriting. Notes on the script. This was very bad news. Then, as she took a sip of tea, he began reading upside down, a skill learned from years of meetings, an attempt to be at least a half-step
ahead of the production executives and story editors he faced off against.
He tried not to cry or laugh out loud as he realized Annibelle had written a very detailed series of notes about some kind of real estate deal, the condition of a house that was being sold, on the cover of his screenplay.
“I read your screenplay,” she lied.
Roy waited. So this was going to be a creative meeting. Harley is dead. Long live this Annibelle person. Tough luck again, thought Roy.
“You are a wonderful writer. I keep wondering to myself what Harley really wants to do with it.”
“You can’t ask him?”
“I know he wants Peloponnesia to be a great movie.”
Oh, to be back home, sipping warm coffee in the office, toying around with the little boy story again. But, instead, out here with nerves raw, staring into the abyss of torturous mediocrity in the prison like creative limbo where screenwriters stood forever on their toes and received input and typed and typed and typed. And thought and thought and thought. All the while imagining the sounds inside the theater. Fine to sit and imagine.
Harley Grace was a brutal adversary. He won the battles in which he chose to engage himself. Roy understood all that about him. It was hard to contemplate moving forward without him, just as it seemed impossible to move forward with him. However Roy handled Annibelle in the matter of Peloponnesia, Harley would be unhappy.
But Harley Grace was a winner. He always landed on his feet. Roy didn’t want to bet against Harley no matter how debilitated he might be. To take advantage of the situation for what seemed like career advancement today might turn out to be the dumbest of moves tomorrow. So Roy regretted very much that he had attended this meeting.
And yet Annibelle Grace beckoned to him in so many ways. Roy felt she might just be aching for him to slip into the driver’s seat and to take her for a long spin through the situation, going wherever he chose to take her.
“How had Harley left it with you on this project?”
“He couldn’t get a star. And then he went off to make Lips And Eyes.”
“He hated that picture.”
“The script wasn’t bad.”
“So Harley was going to try to set Peloponnesia up again somewhere eventually? Eventually has been the operative word for a long time on this one.”
“That’s Hollywood. You know what? We should just put this whole thing on hold until Harley is interested in dealing with it.”
“He expects me to take care of things for him.” Annibelle put her hand on top of his. He let it stay there. Then she withdrew her hand from his. It had been a reflexive gesture of compassion, but somehow it had felt like more to both of them.
“Is there any way I could sit with Harley for a few minutes and try to explain the situation?”
“I don’t know. Let me think about it.”
Photograph by the author Tom Benedek. From the book Peloponnesia by Tom Benedek published by STrithemius Press. Printed by permission.