A showrunner’s fired assistant looks for a new job as a writer. Good luck with that. 3,027 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Caleb was glad when the show was canceled. He felt guilty about his schadenfreude for about five minutes. Now he wouldn’t have to make up a lie about why he wasn’t returning or, worse, tell the truth: that he “hadn’t been invited back,” which was code for being fired.
He had done his best to make amends for his wrap party meltdown – going off on his boss for sleeping with a young female staff writer and not promoting Caleb, dissing the TV community’s push for diversity which meant young white wannabes like himself had a tougher time getting hired. After a few weeks, he’d asked the showrunner Bryan to lunch so they could bury the hatchet. Bryan downgraded the lunch to coffee.
Caleb had worked for Bryan for four years, and that hopefully counted for something now. The showrunner came through. He gave Caleb a signed letter of recommendation and a business card with the number of an agent at CAA. “I sent your writing samples to Terri at the agency. She used to be my agent Bob’s assistant. She just got promoted and she’s hungry for clients. I told her to make you a priority read. And she will. Lord knows I’ve made that company enough money.”
It was a whole lot more than most showrunners in town would have done for an ex-assistant, and Caleb felt pretty grateful.
Caleb didn’t even wait until he got home to call Terri. He texted her from his car. Surprisingly, he got an immediate reply: Will call in 45.
That was at 11 a.m. For the rest of the day, Caleb’s heart skipped a beat every time his cell vibrated.
Bryan was Bob’s biggest client. And considering just how massive CAA was, if a client actually mattered to the agency, that meant he really mattered. Terri thought Caleb’s writing wasn’t bad. The dialogue was a little too cute, and he’d clearly read one too many Shane Black scripts. But the concept was original and the pilot had narrative drive. Terri had rejected at least four potential clients with better samples that very week, but they didn’t come with a recommendation from a showrunner.
Terri knew she would sign Caleb, but the big question was how to get him staffed when he was a young white guy with a mediocre sample. She told her assistant to do some social media stalking, and the results were not encouraging. There were no more than seven first-time staff writer spots not already spoken for – whether by candidates from the writers’ workshops, diversity programs, or assistant promotions. And that last one brought up the big question about Caleb: why hadn’t Bryan staffed him?
Terri finally called him at 6:45 PM. When Caleb said hello, he was trying not to allow the tremor in his voice to register.
“I just read your pilot. I think it’s great,” Terri started. “Look, Caleb, some agents will blow smoke up your ass. But that’s not me. So I’m going to level with you. I can’t sell this pilot. Not because of the writing, but because this genre isn’t something the marketplace is looking for right now. Maybe if you’re Terrence Winter or David Simon, you can sell this type of thing. But from a baby writer? I can’t get it through the door.”
Caleb felt his heart sinking. Terri continued.
“But this gets us somewhere as a sample. Maybe it even gets you in some rooms with the right people.”
“You’re saying you want to sign me?”
“I’m not going to ask you to sign anything, Caleb. Those papers protect me, not you, okay? No – I just want to introduce you to some people and see if we can make things happen. I can get you in a room with Jonathan Bines at Campfire next week. Let’s worry about the paperwork when we start making some money. Does that sound good?”
“That sounds great.” Caleb’s heart was racing. An agent at fucking big-time CAA wanted to rep him!
It was a favor meeting. Terri and Jonathan had started the same week at CAA, Terri on Bob’s desk and Jonathan on Ted’s. Jonathan never even figured out how to transfer a call because Terri always did it for him. In turn, Jonathan wrote a good deal of Terri’s coverage for her. The two of them always joked that, if it had been the 1950s, they would have had a “lavender marriage.” (Jonathan was gay, Terri a lesbian).
Unfortunately, Jonathan’s assistant had panned Caleb’s script. But Jonathan agreed to take a general with Caleb anyway. For Terri.
Jonathan was a creative executive at Campfire Entertainment, Justin Turner’s production company. Justin was a Disney Channel star turned middling TV pretty boy. Campfire had just received its first series order for a show starring Justin as a mob informant who goes into witness protection in a small New England town, and sets up shop as a P.I.. (It was pitched as The Sopranos meets Murder, She Wrote.) Jonathan had developed the project and was set for a Co-Executive Producer credit.
This was ostensibly a staffing meeting – the first hoop for Caleb to jump through if he impressed. Next, a meeting with the showrunner. But Jonathan knew that wasn’t going to happen. Because this wasn’t really a staffing meeting. This was a favor meeting.
After Jonathan’s assistant gave Caleb a bottle of water, and Jonathan waited the traditional five minutes past the scheduled meeting time, the TV executive came out to greet Caleb and show him into the office. Jonathan motioned for Caleb to sit down.
“So tell me a little about yourself.”
“Well, I grew up in the Bay Area,” Caleb said, taking a nervous sip of water. “I always knew I wanted be a writer. I wrote my first screenplay when I was fifteen.”
Jonathan laughed like that was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. Caleb tried his best to laugh along with him, though he didn’t really see the humor.
“What was it about?”
“It was a sequel to Reservoir Dogs.”
This nearly brought Jonathan to tears. “What the fuck, dude? Everyone dies at the end!”
“Right – but what about the guy who ordered the job? Can you imagine them sorting through the carnage trying to figure out what the fuck went wrong?”
“Actually… That’s kind of cool.”
“I was fifteen, so it sucked. But that was the idea.”
“So then what?”
“I came down here to go to UCLA, and then I met Bryan Danner, the showrunner. I was his assistant for four years. He introduced me to Terri.”
“Gotcha. So how long have you been working with Terri?”
“Since last week.”
“Nice, nice. Congrats then!”
“Thanks.” There was an awkward pause. Caleb went to put his arm on the back of the couch, but immediately felt the cold wet of his flopsweat soaking through his shirt and touching his bare skin. He lowered his arm and hoped he wasn’t blushing. Jesus, why was this so nerve-racking?
“So your sample had a Tarantino thing going on. And you wrote a sequel to Reservoir Dogs. Would you say you’re primarily a cable writer?”
Caleb wondered if this was a trap. Wasn’t he here to meet about a job on a network show? “I wouldn’t say I see myself as strictly cable or network. I’d just love any opportunity to write professionally.”
“Look,” Jonathan said, trying to sound sincere, “you seem like a good guy, so let me just lay it out for you. You’re not going to get staffed on our show. I’d love to do that for you if I could, but the fact of the matter is that we need to hire writers from our studio’s workshop and we have to fill our diversity slots. You’re not like half Mayan or something, are you?”
Caleb felt his face getting hot and his neck itching. Diversity, every fucking time. Was there any way for a young white guy to get a job in this town?
Caleb was worried about how the hell he was going to pay his rent without a job. There was only one week left in May, which meant his hiring window was closing. On June first, “staffing season” would be over.
Terri had set him up on three production company meetings, but none had led to a showrunner face to face. Caleb was sitting in bed, sweating under the covers on a brutally hot L.A. morning, deciding whether to start drinking as soon as he got out of bed. Then his phone vibrated.
It was Terri. Caleb was so excited that he dropped his cell on the hardwood. The screen cracked, but he was still able to answer it.
“Caleb, Terri. Get out of bed, take a shower, and get dressed. You’re meeting with Constantine Makkos in two hours.”
Constantine was a Greek auteur known for his off-the-wall action thrill rides featuring international casts. He had just received a ten-episode order from Amazon for Cascadia, his first TV series – a sci-fi epic about a world war between humans and human-animal hybrid chimeras. Constantine was going to direct all ten episodes. CAA had wooed him away from a boutique agency and negotiated the Amazon deal for him. Now he was looking for writers and not happy with those being offered.
Constantine had rejected every high-level writer whom the agency had thrown his way, calling their samples “uninspired Hollywood hogwash.” Now he was threatening to jump ship for WME. And, on top of that, Constantine was insisting on “new voices,” decreeing that he wouldn’t staff Cascadia with a single writer who had any Hollywood credits. The TV lit department was scrambling. When the agency readied a staffing book to send to Constantine, Caleb’s sample was in it, albeit buried in the back.
Constantine prided himself on never reading coverage – though he claimed he could tell if a script was any good based on just the first page. And Caleb’s script had a hell of a first page. It was about a group of Roman Centurians stationed in Judea in the first century BC. The twist was that they sounded more like characters in a Scorsese movie than an Aristophanes play. Terri, Bryan, and most others thought the concept grew tired pretty quickly. But Constantine was completely drawn in by the teaser, and he requested a meeting with Caleb in the filmmaker’s hotel at the Four Seasons on Doheny Drive.
When Caleb arrived, the suite was buzzing with activity. Constantine had scheduled multiple meetings simultaneously which meant he and Caleb were interrupted more than a few times by various acolytes. All the while, Constantine held court in a bathrobe.
Caleb ate up the atmosphere; this was the Hollywood he’d dreamed about as a kid – here was a busy eccentric artist, hard at work while still partaking of the luxuries afforded by his success. What a change from the corporate, antiseptic and buttoned-down atmosphere in Bryan’s offices.
Caleb saw his own script on the coffee table, turned to page five. “I love your teaser. Great voice, ballsy writing. Tell me about yourself,” Constantine entreated. “And please: dispense with the bullshit. Yes, I’m a genius. I already know that about myself. Tell me about Caleb.”
“Right. I grew up in Northern California. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I was pretty inspired by Tarantino—“
But Constantine was distracted by a costume designer holding up fabric samples. Then he turned back to Caleb and continued.
“Tarantino. A fucking hack. Steals from French, Chinese, Japanese. Americans are too stupid to know the difference. You disagree?”
“I mean, I see your point. He really leans into the whole pastiche thing a little too much, I guess.”
“Pastiche… They teach you that term in film school? You write on my show, I don’t want to hear that academic mental masturbation bullshit. Understand?”
“Of course.” Caleb wasn’t sure what else to say.
Luckily, Constantine loved nothing more than the sound of his own voice so he filled in the silence.
“Look, they tell me we’re doing a streaming show. Episodic, serialized, online, blah blah blah. Here’s what it really is: ten one-hour movies. Big, action, high stakes, okay? Sorry, one minute.” He turned to investigate a series of location photos in a binder held by a thin bearded man, then said, “Get these out of my sight.” Constantine turned back to Caleb.
“Okay, so you like Tarantino. Fine. Lots of people like Tarantino. Maybe I’ll learn more about you by what you hate. What bonds you with a coworker? Talking shit about your other asshole coworker, right? So what do you hate?”
Caleb knew the question was a minefield. What was the right answer?
“Alright, I hate network procedurals – CSI, NCIS, Law & Order – all that stuff,” Constantine leaned back, crossed his arms and smiled. Caleb took this as a good sign. “Lazy stupid storytelling with predictable endings and no character. The cops, the military and the government are always right, which is a fucking fascist ideology. It’s garbage made for square states.”
Constantine nodded. “Thank you, Caleb. This was very enlightening.”
He offered his hand. Caleb shook it.
The meeting had been short, but Caleb thought it had gone well. His cell started vibrating. It was Terri. The tone of her voice was not promising.
“Caleb, were you aware that Constantine Makkos has directed multiple episodes of every single CSI franchise? In fact, it’s the only television he has done.”
“Constantine Makkos loves CSI. Loves NCIS. Loves Law & Order. He just told Bob, my boss, that those shows are the only true demonstration in mass media of what is known as ‘American exceptionalism.’ And you just took a big shit all over them. In a meeting that – despite all odds for a creditless, never-sold-a-pilot, young white guy – was a fucking gimme.”
She paused. Caleb had no idea what to say. He was driving and thought about turning his car into oncoming traffic. Hadn’t he already learned his lesson about running his stupid mouth? And why hadn’t he looked up Constantine’s IMDB credits page before taking the meeting?
“So do yourself a favor,” Terri continued. “Next time you go into a meeting with a showrunner or a director, look at their IMDb page fiirst?”
“Uh, yes, ma’am.”
“Don’t call me ‘ma’am’. I work for you after all.” Terri let out a mirthless, cutting laugh. Then she hung up.
Caleb was in shock. The meeting had been “a fucking gimme” and he’d botched it. His cell rang. An 818 number. One of the studios?
“Caleb Winter? This is Dana Brown. I run—“
“That’s right. I hear you’re looking for work and my friend Jonathan Bines suggested I give you a call. You used to work for my other friend Bryan, who had lots of nice things to say about you. Any chance to meet today?”
All Caleb could think about was how weird this business was. He’d just blown a job on a serialized cable show by trash-talking network procedurals. Now he was about to go meet on a network procedural.
The Malicious Intent writers office was on the CBS Radford lot. Caleb wished he had brought a second shirt because his was sticking to his skin.
“I’ll let Dana know you’re here,” her assistant said.
Dana Brown was a small pretty woman without an immediate commanding presence. But her accomplishments spoke for themselves – as did the Emmys lining the shelves behind her desk.
“So let’s get right down to it. What’s your dream?”
“Well, honestly, I’d like to be you.”
She smiled, “Good answer.”
“And I love procedurals,” Caleb lied. “I have a lot of ideas for Malicious Intent.”
Dana seemed bemused. “Well, that’s great. But let’s focus on what’s in front of us. Do you have a car?” Caleb nodded, confused by the question, but Dana didn’t miss a beat. “And I’m assuming you have a basic idea of what the job entails? I know you’ve been a showrunner’s assistant for a while, and this may seem like a step back, but it’s a great writers room, and we really try to include all the assistants, even the Writers PA, in the creative process…”
The term “Writers PA” was like a dagger in Caleb’s heart. He wasn’t here to interview for a staff writer job, he was here to be the Writers PA – the lowest man on the totem pole in the writers office. The lunch-getter, the errand-runner, the go-fer. When he’d worked for Bryan, bossing around the Writers PA had been the only thing to get Caleb through the day. And now Caleb was interviewing to be that guy. And right after flubbing a “gimme” staffing job. But the worst part was, he would take the job. It was the end of May, the clock was running down, and so were his savings.
Caleb tried his best to stay positive as he arrived for his first day on Malicious Intent. He was working on a TV show, and Dana had seemed really cool. ‘This is a great opportunity,’ he kept repeating to himself.
He drove onto the lot and was thrilled to see there was even a parking spot with his name on it in front of the building. He walked to the elevator with a spring in his step. As the doors were closing, he heard a familiar voice. “Wait up. Can you hold the door?” He met his first co-worker. It was Nora, the diversity hire writer whom his ex-boss had been screwing. The very same Nora he’d blamed for getting him fired.
Caleb thought of a million things to say. He wanted to snark something like, “At least you won’t be fucking Dana” to the Asian scripter. Instead, he went with the innocuous, “Hi, Nora.”
“Are you on Malicious Intent?” she asked him.
“Yep. Writers PA.”
He seethed at what he thought was her snide smile. He grew even angrier at what she said next. “It will be fun to work together again.”
But he kept his mouth shut. He was learning.
This story first posted here on July 28, 2016. Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season