An unethical producer is about to make the biggest movie deal of his career. Or is he? 3,469 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
S. Murray Gould had no idea who John le Carré was. But if he had, he would have thought he was trapped in one of the British author’s complex spy novels. After all, it was two in the morning, and here he was in the back of an SUV with a black hood over his head.
The three large grim-faced men who were accompanying him had arrived at his Beverly Hills home ten minutes earlier and were now whisking him off to an undisclosed location. There he would finally lay his eyes on the “property” most of Hollywood was buzzing about.
“The package is secure,” said one of the men into a radio mic. “We are en route.”
All Murray knew was that a hot new film script had suddenly surfaced and only a select few Hollywood producers had been contacted about buying it. None knew what the script was about. All they knew was its title: Liquid Gold. Even the writer’s name was unknown. Rumor had it that Liquid Gold was a great story with the potential to be a box office smash and a surefire Oscar contender.
“If you are interested in producing your next hit movie,” read a mysterious text on Murray’s personal iPhone, “you must agree to, and abide by, certain conditions.”
“How the fuck did they get this number?” Murray muttered to himself. “Even I don’t know it.”
Not surprising since it was pretty widely known that S. Murray Gould wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb on the marquee. Nor the handsomest. Those who met him often described the producer as “a ball sack with a bad comb over.”
Even the ‘S’ in his name was as hollow as an Associate Producer credit. Murray had added it early in his career when someone told him that Harry Truman had selected ‘S’ as his middle initial because he thought it more befitting of a U.S. President. So Murray Gould did the same since he liked the way S. Murray Gould Production looked on the big screen. Naturally, the ubiquitous ‘S’ provoked many in Hollywood to joke incessantly about what it might stand for: Shithead, Scumbag, Slimeball and Schmuck were among the more popular guesses.
Like many powerful movie producers, Murray wasn’t well-liked within Hollywood. He was what the industry called a hyphenate – a Producer-Putz. His interference in the creative process was legendary. A long list of writers and directors had sworn they’d gladly risk a murder trial because they were confident a jury of their peers would return a verdict of justifiable homicide.
Murray also had a reputation for screwing scripters out of compensation for their labors or, more egregiously, simply stealing storylines, characters and themes from any screenplay, spec or otherwise, that came across his staffers’ desks. The inevitable lawsuits that followed were always covered by Acquisitions and Development Errors and Omissions insurance included in the film’s production budget, so Murray never paid any damages out of his own pocket.
So what was it that made S. Murray Gould so successful? First, he came from a wealthy family and bought his way into a modestly successful independent production company that was having cash flow problems. And second, his instinct. Known as The Man With The Golden Gut, Murray was an idiot with a savant’s knack for choosing or ripping off good scripts and producing films that rarely lost money. No one knew how he did it, but as long as he had that mojo he would always be one of the top go-to guys in the business.
Murray placed a few phone calls to other high-profile producers, a few of whom received the same text and swore on the graves of their wives, mothers and/or children that they would absolutely not participate. But Murray did what he was certain they had done: he immediately agreed to the bidding conditions. But not before he had the head of studio security check out who had sent the text.
“It came from a burner phone,” the head of security reported. “There’s no way we can identify the sender.”
Judging by the tire squeals which the SUV was making, the hooded Murray correctly guessed they had entered an underground garage.
“The package is on site,” a man said into a radio mic.
“You’re cleared for access,” another man’s voice crackled in response. “Bring him up.”
Murray was led into a service elevator and he counted seventeen pings before he was escorted down a carpeted corridor. All this cloak and dagger stuff was bullshit, Murray knew. But goddamn it was exciting. He felt like the hero in one of his own movies. He made a silent vow that if the script was half as good as the theatrics, he’d produce it.
Murray was ushered into a room and a woman’s voice greeted him.
“Thank you for coming, Mister Gould,” she purred, her voice soft and alluring. “Would you be kind enough to remove your clothes?”
“What the fuck for?” Murray snapped, suddenly wary.
“We want to be sure you don’t have any phones or other devices to photograph or otherwise make a copy of the script,” the woman explained. “We’ve provided you with equipment so you can read as well as follow an audio recording of the script. We’ve also set up a video camera and we’ll be watching you. Oh, and there are guards at the door to ensure you’re not disturbed. We’ll leave you now.”
Once he was alone, Murray pulled the black hood from his head and looked around. He was in a luxury hotel suite, with a plush terrycloth robe to wear and a comfortable chair to read in. A few feet away, a small video camera perched on a tripod stared at him. A leather-bound script and an iPod with earbuds were sitting on a glass-topped coffee table. Murray opened the cover and saw the screenplay’s title page: Liquid Gold.
He didn’t recognize the writer’s name. “Who the fuck isthat?” he muttered to himself. “Must be some nobody.”
But he liked the main character’s name: it was strong and masculine. Fifteen pages into the script, Murray’s golden gut kicked in and he knew that Liquid Gold was a cinch to be a box office smash. By the time he got to the final FADE OUT, he was convinced of it.
Earlier that same month, McNulty heard the staccato of stiletto heels in the courtyard outside his office window. He heard the outer office door open and close, and then the muffled voice of his receptionist, Wanda.
“A lady’s here to see you,” Wanda said through the intercom. “She doesn’t have an appointment.”
As one of Hollywood’s premier private eyes – a local newspaper columnist had dubbed him “The Hollywood Eye” a few years back – McNulty had come to expect walk-in business. His experience, along with a few thousand pulp detective stories, told him that more than likely it would be a dame with a problem. While Chandler and Hammett portrayed gumshoes as knights errant who often fell for a beautiful and dangerous femme fatale, the reality was much more mundane. Truth be told, detectives like himself were just working stiffs scraping out a living by rooting through the debris of broken promises, broken marriages and broken lives.
“Send her in.”
McNulty stood up, the door opened and Wanda ushered the lady into the office. He recognized her at once.
“Hello, Seamus,” she said with a winsome smile.
“Hello, Mickey,” he answered, failing to disguise his surprise. “It’s been a while.”
Michaela Colfax – Mickey to her friends – was just as lovely as she was when McNulty first laid eyes on her. She was early 40s, tall with a voluptuous figure, and elegantly attired. The stiletto heels only accentuated her already killer legs. Recently widowed, she had been the wife of Marcus Colfax, one of L.A.’s more successful real estate barons. Marcus Colfax was ten years older than Mickey and from all accounts their 20-year marriage was a happy one. Must have been, McNulty mused, because Colfax left his entire $2.5 billion estate to her. Over the years, McNulty had met Mickey a few times when his services as a private eye were retained by her husband.
“What can I do for you, Mickey?”
“My husband thought very highly of you, Seamus,” she said. “He told me how trustworthy and reliable you are. He also told me you weren’t afraid of being a little shady if you had to be.”
McNulty grinned and gave her a noncommittal shrug. It was true. Hollywood was full of con artists, and McNulty had no qualms about scamming the scammers.
“You’re my only hope,” she continued, her eyes imploring. “If you say no, I don’t know who else I can turn to.”
“You had me at ‘shady,’” McNulty said. “Who’s the mark?”
“Ever hear of a producer named S. Murray Gould?”
“The man with the golden gut?” McNulty said. “I hear he’s an A-one dipshit. What’s your beef with him?”
“He stole something from me,” she said softly as tears brimmed in her eyes. “A young screenwriter’s dream. Twenty five years ago.”
“And now you want him to pay,” McNulty said. It was a statement, not a question.
Mickey’s mouth curled into a tight cruel smile.
Murray Gould removed the iPod earbuds and closed the leather script with a crisp snap. Set in L.A., the screenplay had all the elements for a commercial success: murder, sex, power, corruption and an anti-hero of questionable moral character. Murray wasn’t crazy about the title, but that was an easy fix. And he believed the ending where the leading lady is shot and killed was too downbeat. He’d have to tweak that. And though he’d never written anything other than his name on a bar tab, Murray was deluded enough to believe his creative input could actually make a great script greater.
He didn’t know for sure who the other bidders were, but he wasn’t going to let any of those bastards take Liquid Gold away from him.
Just then a man entered the suite and tossed the black hood into Murray’s lap and told him to put it on.
“I trust you liked what you read,” the woman said once the hood was back in place. “The auction will begin precisely at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Whoever presents the highest bid by the 9 a.m. cutoff will own the script. The bidding starts at one million.”
The woman instructed Murray to get dressed. As he was being escorted to the door, the woman placed a cell phone in his hand.
“The auction will be conducted by text on this burner phone,” she informed him. “The other bidders will have burners as well. When the auction begins, you will all see the bids as they come in.”
“At least tell me how many bidders there are,” Murray pleaded.
“Five,” the woman replied. “I wish you luck.”
On the elevator ride to the garage, Murray knew it’d be the schmuck with the biggest balls and the fattest check who came out on top. As he was being led to a waiting SUV, Murray heard the squeal of another vehicle coming to a stop and the doors opening and a man’s voice announcing, “The package is on site.”
“Hey, asshole!” Murray shouted. “Whoever you are, you’re wasting your time! This motherfucker is mine!”
The men shoved Murray into the waiting SUV and it drove off into the night.
The idea was Mickey’s, but Mickey needed McNulty’s smarts, resources and connections to pull it off. He told her during their office meeting that he’d need a few weeks to get it organized plus reimbursement for substantial out-of-pocket expenses.
“That doesn’t concern me,” Mickey told him. “I can afford whatever it takes to ruin him.”
“Well, this should do it.”
Only Mickey’s late husband and a few close friends knew what S. Murray Gould had done to hurt her so deeply. She’d been a fresh-faced twenty-one year old with dreams of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter when she first crossed paths with the producer. One of Mickey’s girlfriends, an aspiring actress, was friendly with Murray’s assistant. He agreed to read Mickey’s original screenplay Cries From The Heart based on her mother’s tragic death and its effect on her family. Mickey still vividly remembered her elation when Murray’s assistant called. “He loves the script. He wants to meet you.”
Two days later, Mickey was sitting in Murray’s office.
“I want to make this film,” Murray said, charm oozing from every pore. “But it’s not quite there yet.” He handed Mickey several typewritten pages. “These are just a few notes on what I think the script needs to attract star talent.” And being a naïve newbie, Mickey agreed to work them into the script. She didn’t like most of them, but he was the professional with a couple of produced movies to his credit so she figured he must know what’s needed.
But with each new draft she turned in, he’d give her new notes. Soon they were eating away at the heart and spirit of a story she had lived. Nor was he paying her for the rewrites. Finally, she asked Murray for some option money.
“No problem,” Murray said with a reptilian smile. “I’ll talk to business affairs.”
And that was the last she heard from him. He refused to take her calls and ordered his assistant to say he was no longer interested in producing her screenplay. Mickey took the rejection hard, but there were other producers and her hopes remained high. But those were dashed a month later when she read in the trades that Murray was going into production on a new coming-of-age story about a young girl and her family struggling to survive the mother’s tragic death.
According to the item, S. Murray Gould would produce the movie based on his original story and a script written by … his assistant.
“I tried to sue, of course,” Mickey told McNulty with a sigh of resignation at their meeting. “But I wasn’t a member of the Writer’s Guild so they couldn’t help me. And it took me a while to find an attorney who was willing to go after him. When I did, we found out Murray had covered his ass by registering my original script with the Guild under his and his assistant’s name. Then, when we deposed them, Murray, his assistant and my actress girlfriend all lied, saying Murray had been working on the script long before he met me. His assistant got a screenplay credit, my so-called girlfriend got a supporting role in the movie, and Murray got his first breakout box office success.”
Once again, the painful memory brought tears to Mickey’s eyes.
“He not only shattered my dreams, but he built his success on the heartache of my family. I never wrote anything else again.”
McNulty took her hands in his and whispered, “Then it’s time he paid what he owes you.”
The next day’s bidding for Liquid Gold began at exactly 8 a.m. when Murray’s burner phone hummed with an incoming text message: BIDDING IS NOW OPEN. START @ $1M. As Murray understood it, to insure anonymity, each of the five bidders were identified by a gemstone: Ivory, Onyx, Jade, Topaz, and his, Opal. It was also understood that each bid would be texted in alphabetical order.
Ivory was first, bidding $1.2M.
Jade followed with $1.5M.
Onyx was next at $1.75M.
Murray as Opal countered with $2M.
Topaz topped it at $2.1M
As the hour wound down, the offers went up. At the twenty minute mark, with a bid of $3.8M on the table, Ivory and Topaz dropped out. Then Murray jumped to $4.5M. The ballsy gambit worked. Jade pulled out shortly after when the bidding reached $4.8M. Then, with only Onyx remaining, Murray went all in with an unheard-of $5.5M.
A full two minutes ticked by and, finally, Murray’s burner hummed with an incoming text from Onyx: LET THE SCHMUCK HAVE IT!
Elated, Murray fist-pumped the air. “In your faces, motherfuckers!”
Murray wasted little time ordering his PR people to trumpet his acquisition of Liquid Gold for an astonishing and record-breaking $5.5 million. Within hours, all of Hollywood was talking of little else. Murray’s office was inundated with congratulatory calls from agents, producers, actors, studio execs and hedge fund partners. And Murray, true to his egomaniacal nature, basked in the accolades.
It was all a charade of course. A charade masterfully engineered by McNulty and Mickey who had created the screenplay’s initial buzz with well-placed gossip columnists. In actuality, there were no other bidders. It had been the P.I. and his client on four separate burner phones pushing Murray’s bids higher and higher.
Sitting on the hotel’s penthouse balcony overlooking the Hollywood skyline, Mickey and McNulty couldn’t contain their laughter when, forty five minutes after the bidding closed, the Cayman Islands bank confirmed the electronic transfer of $5.5 million from Murray’s discretionary fund into one of her late husband’s off-shore corporate shell accounts. Only then did McNulty text the two suits waiting in Murray’s outer office to hand over the leather-bound script and a flash drive with a PDF copy along with Murray’s signed affidavit that it was, indeed, the same screenplay he had read.
Now that they had succeeded, and The Man With The Golden Gut had purchased Liquid Gold with no easy way of backing out, Mickey asked apprehensively, “Can we be arrested for fraud?”
“Relax,” McNulty said confidently. “What he bought was exactly what we delivered. He even verified it in writing.”
“But we didn’t own it.”
“And, as Murray will soon find out, neither does he.”
Mickey had told McNulty at the outset that, if they succeeded in separating Murray from his millions, she would anonymously donate all the money to St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Which she did.
They had banked on Murray not knowing anything about movie history. If he had, he’d have recognized from the screenwriter’s name and the first FADE IN that the producer was about to become the victim of a big switcheroo.
The first tip-off that something wasn’t kosher was the scripter’s name: Joe Gillis. As an inside joke, Mickey had chosen it in honor of the doomed screenwriter played by William Holden in the classic 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard.
The second tip-off came in the script’s opening scene when private eye Jake Gittes is first introduced. But Murray, being the colossal dumbass that he was, had no clue that he had paid $5.5 million for a script that had already been made and shown in theatres back in 1974.
“What the fuck is Chinatown?” the producer bellowed when told the real title by the studio executives.
Murray felt his knees buckle and a massive throbbing in his head.
“Then what the hell was the liquid gold?” he sputtered.
“It’s the water,” the execs laughed. “Everybody knows that!”
Well, everybody but S. Murray Gould.
The coup de gras was delivered twenty-four hours later when the news broke worldwide about how “Hollywood’s Mega Moron” had been fooled by rather obvious machinations. Overnight, McNulty anonymously released to a network of media contacts hard evidence showing how S. Murray Gould had been royally screwed. The proof included a video clip of Murray sitting comfortably in a hotel suite as he reading and listening to the script, printouts of the bidding texts, an email confirming the transfer of $5.5 million from Murray’s account to an undisclosed bank and, last but not least, a copy of the affidavit signed by Murray himself.
As so often happens in Hollywood, news of someone’s career and future going down in flames spreads like STDs. And, within hours, Murray’s stupidity had gone global.
“You can’t do this to me!” Murray wailed when the studio execs cancelled his housekeeping deal and declared him persona non grata. “I’ll sue your asses and piss down your throats, assholes!”
Murray was still yelling and cursing when security forcibly removed him from his studio offices, which was of course captured on a few dozen iPhones. The videos went viral, compounding Murray’s humiliation.
“Congratulations,” McNulty winked over drinks. He and Mickey were seated in a darkened corner of the Frolic Room, one of Hollywood’s last great dive bars, just steps away from Gary Cooper’s sidewalk star, and adjacent to the Pantages Theater. “You got your payback.”
“I did,” Mickey said with a smile. “Thanks to you.”
“And, thanks to you, S. Murray Gould is finished in Hollywood. He’s nothing more than a punchline now and for the rest of his life.”
“I hope it’s a long one,” Mickey said sweetly.
They clinked glasses and sipped their drinks.
“I guess we know what the ‘S’ stands for now,” McNulty noted. “… Sucker!”
“Amen,” Mickey laughed. “May it always be so.”