A writer gets a movie job offer on an exotic island and goes to check it out. 2,134 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was bang in the middle of another Writers Guild strike, and I woke up with a throbbing headache. I hadn’t drunk more than half a bottle of Trader Joe cheap red, and in those days that wasn’t enough for me to suffer a hangover. No, the pounding in my forehead was a form of dread at the thought of traipsing over to Sony Studios to join my comrades on the picket line yet again. I didn’t even know what we were fighting for exactly: just something to do with making money from the Internet. All I did know for certain was that I was broke, and my damn headache wouldn’t go away.
As I sipped a cup of coffee inside one of the few remaining rent-controlled apartments in Santa Monica, I felt entirely disillusioned. I couldn’t turn on the TV for any respite because, without the writers, the programming was filled with reality shows and repeats. Nor did I feel like going out for a walk, as the June gloom had set in since L.A. is never as sunny as people like to think. So, instead, I stared at my laptop screen trying to come up with an original story idea.
In theory, this quiet period would give Hollywood writers an opportunity to delve into our artistry and create something we cared about. But my screen remained blank for an hour. If I’m honest, it was a futile task; I hadn’t been able to write anything original since my first script that had snagged me representation. Everything else since then had been assignments.
I was trying very hard to remember what I cared about – maybe that was giving me the headache – when my phone rang. This hadn’t happened in a few weeks. I feared that a comrade was calling out of disgust with my inability to show up at the picket line. But the call was from my agent.
Had the strike suddenly ended? Or was she quitting the business to start up a yoga studio?
When I answered my land line, I did notice something different in her voice. There was a shakiness, like an accidental vibrato. Gone was the assertiveness of pilot season. Times were tough on everyone. Ten percent of nothing is a Lexapro prescription.
“Hi James, there’s an opportunity,” she said. “A writing job in Cambodia.”
“How much?” I asked without hesitation, forgetting the bizarreness of what she just said.
“About fifty grand. It’s a feature. You may get to direct it as well.”
“Have they seen my reel?” I asked with dread. I knew it was amateurish.
“Of course not! I’m not stupid. I told them you didn’t have a reel, but that you were good with actors.”
“Here’s the thing – you’re not up against anyone. They want only you.”
“Why me? I haven’t ever had anything produced and the only thing I know how to do well in the business is pitch.”
“You do know how to pitch, that’s for sure. But I’m not here to blow smoke up your ass. I’m calling you with a job.”
“What if the WGA finds out?”
“They won’t find out. It’s a movie company in fucking Cambodia. No one’s ever made shit in Cambodia. Just fly there and phone it in and get back to L.A. once the strike’s become dust. Look at this as some easy cash, and some good scuba diving. You dive?”
“No. Listen, how did they hear about me?”
“Some girl you went to UCLA with – Jenny Logan. They hired some Americans. She was an assistant at William Morris, now she’s heading up this studio’s production arm. Look, I have to go. I’m late for my babysitting appointment.”
“I didn’t realize you had kids.”
“I don’t. It’s my second job.”
And the line went dead.
I remembered Jenny from a few years back. She’d had a bit of a coke problem from what I could recall. I’d hooked up with her one night, a few months before I got married, and went to some hip-hop club in Compton because she loved the thrill of being the only blonde in there. After a few vodka shots and lines of blow, we were all over each other. In fact, she may have been the last girl I screwed before I tied the knot.
I found Jenny on Skype and spoke to her that evening. She told me she’d moved to the island of Koh Rong to clean up her act and “actually produce shit” rather than be somebody’s lackey. She said it was good that I was divorced. She could tell “that girl never fucked you properly.” That wasn’t the only reason my marriage lasted just 6 months, I told her. But it was the main reason.
It turned out that the production studio was owned by a rich Luxembourg businessman who had earned hundreds of millions of dollars investing in foreign call centers. Apparently, before India became the place you called to get through to Verizon, you called a small African nation whose ties to Luxembourg dated back to the 19th Century. When the Grand Duke became envious of all his rivals’ colonial empires, he wanted Luxembourg to have its own. Flash forward to present day when it was an ingenious idea to set-up a European-speaking call center there.
Jurgen Hauser, or "Jack” as he preferred to be called, then decided to invest the vast profits he’d made in Africa into some Hollywood movies. He got badly burned by the studios because of their phony net profit accounting practices. So Jack set up his own film studio in Cambodia to compete with the U.S. majors. He’d even hired some Oscar-winning editors and production designers as well as ambitious execs like Jenny.
I asked if there was a catch. Jenny replied that everyone was on staff. So if you weren’t happy, you couldn’t just bail – you were beholden to your contract.
“Are you happy?” I inquired.
There was a long delay. “Sure. Why don’t you come out and visit? I’ll get them to pay for your flight. You can come meet Jack and check out the facilities here.”
And with that, I was on the next flight out of LAX for Phnom Penh.
Jenny greeted me at the tiny landing strip that was Koh Rong airport. I was delighted just to be traveling. I was still young enough to think few things were more exciting than seeing an exotic new stamp in my passport. Wow, I’m in Cambodia, I kept thinking to myself as a driver took Jenny and I on the brief journey to the studio compound. Outside, it was dusty and clearly third world. But I also noticed a number of colorful vans, bright murals adorned all over their doors, speeding along the bumpy island roads. These “Jeepneys” belonged to the island and were Koh Rong’s main mode of public transportation.
When the gates of the studio compound opened to let us in, I thought to myself that I could easily make a movie here. We were driven past the five-star onsite accommodations. The studio’s production facilities were on the other side of the campus. Yet barbed wire fences surrounded the entire compound presumably to keep outsiders out. Luxury confined for foreigners on a poor island for locals. Who said colonialism was dead?
Suddenly, my ears popped open from the flight and I heard the end of a Jenny monologue.
“It’s fucking awful, James.”
I tried to figure out what she could have been talking about. I said with fake sincerity, “It sounds it. So let me get this straight. You’re not happy. Because?”
She became annoyed. “Keep your voice down,” she whispered, not trusting our driver to hear her. “Because this place is like a prison.”
Jenny told me how frustrated she’d become at not being able to do what she’d been promised. She was an ambitious young American who thought she could fast track her career by using the beautiful island setting and studio facilities to shoot commercials, documentaries, even feature films. But she found herself getting blocked at every turn by Jack, who was always saying “Nein.” As soon as she asked to leave, he reminded her that she was on a two-year contract and then started to withhold her pay to ensure she completed her stay. There were security guards all around the compound, so escape was out of the question.
We arrived at my room finally. I threw my luggage onto the crisp beige sheets of a typically Asian low-lying bed and tried the flat-screen TV. Then I asked Jenny why she had spun me such a positive line on Skype.
“I thought if you came here and made the movie, it might be more fun for me and the others,” she confessed. “It’s not bad here all the time. It’s one of the best places to dive on the planet. When we spoke, I was trying to look at the upside.”
Jenny was clearly troubled. I put my arm around her and gave her a warm hug. It was exactly what she needed, some reassurance from an old friend that everything was going to be all right. Of course, I then lowered my hand down to her ass and leaned in to kiss her.
“What are you doing?” she snapped, jerking her head away.
I’d been on a 20-hour traveling marathon, I hadn’t had sex since that hooker in Tijuana after my divorce, and my animal instincts took over.
“We always had such a great connection,” I said. I moved in, about to embrace her again. But she backed away again.
“Look, James, I’m not in a good place right now.”
“Fine, totally fine, I get it. Maybe just a blowy?”
She looked at me, horrified.
“I’m joking, Jenny,” I said, recovering quickly. “Listen, thanks for getting me this opportunity. I really appreciate it.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. You can check out the studio and meet Jack.”
With that she left me alone. I donned a pair of soft-cushioned slippers and shaved in front of more mirrors than I knew where to look. Then I got online and surfed some porn.
The next day, I visited the studio. Everyone was in the middle of shooting a commercial for some new brand of vodka with two dozen beautiful teenage Cambodian girls. But there were very few smiles, and that wasn’t just to create the prerequisite cool for a liquor commercial.
Jenny wasn’t around. She had said she had some work stuff to do but I knew she was trying to avoid me. So a production designer named Max attached himself to me. He told me the equipment was state of the art, and I’d be able to use a couple of Panavision Millennium XLs and some G-series anamorphic lenses to create incredible depth-of-field and utilize the gorgeous location. I nodded, not understanding a word that he said. Max took me on a tour, showing me the processing lab, a sound stage and the editing rooms. The two editors were American guys who’d actually won an Academy Award back in the 1990s.
I asked Max what they were doing here. “If you want a long vacation, this could work for you like it does for the editors,” he told me. “ They’ve achieved things in their careers already so they’re here for a long holiday. And also…” Max turned behind to check no one was around, “for the local girls.” He just laughed and we moved on outside.
Something didn’t feel right. As soon as we left the building, Max stammered: “Don’t do it, dude. It’s a nightmare.”
I declined his offer of a puff on his methamphetamine cigarette, a habit he’d picked up on Koh Rong. From what he told me, all the problems seemed to stem from Jack, whose overall egomania was only bettered by his incompetence at filmmaking. Both the studio’s, where he interfered on every project, and his own. Jack didn’t just see himself as the money guy, he thought of himself as a creative genius, too. Yet the boss had spent the last months “directing” an underwater movie, but was so inept that he’d ended up without a single shot of the sea.
Max introduced me to a number of other war-weary souls whose misery was compounded by their salaries being held back like Jenny’s. It seemed once you signed up, leaving was impossible. The army of private security guards near the gate of the compound saw to that.
So that’s what Max, Jenny and the other Americans were hoping from me: that I could convince this Luxembourg billionaire to change his ways and give everyone the freedom to make a movie without his interference, and, more importantly pay their salaries.
I knew that was a heavy burden on some fairly weak shoulders.