The wannabe director goes in search of a job, any job, inside the industry. 2,086 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The routine continued — the run, the coffee, the calls. The rejections. Finally, Max scored an interview, instructed to arrive on a Friday at eleven a.m., and screamed with joy as he hung up the phone. He allowed himself one minute of unrestrained happiness in which he jumped up and down, threw himself on the ground and beat the carpet with his arms and legs like a baby.
"Yes. Yes. Yes," Max shouted.
Then he picked himself up, adjusted his clothing, and went back to the telephone.
Max had never heard of the company so he tried to do some research. He scanned the trades for some mention of Smigrod Productions. He checked 16mm film rental catalogues. He went to the movie and television Academy libraries. The best he could discover was that Seymour Smigrod might have produced a short-lived game show 20 years ago. After that, Max found nothing. Smigrod Productions was not the artistic haven he sought, but still it was a beginning, and he sorely needed to start somewhere working on a film — not preparing the supporting documents.
Max arrived early for the interview. The address he had scrawled on a slip of paper matched that of a sign that hung askew outside a bungalow on a side street in Hollywood. The neighborhood was seedy. Aging cars were jacked up along the curb, missing one or more tires. Litter was strewn on the cracked and pitted concrete sidewalk. Even the fronds on a pair of decrepit palm trees hung listless.
"It’s a nice résumé," a thin faced woman with glasses and ratty curls said to him. She had told him her name but too quickly for Max to catch. He was reluctant to ask her to repeat herself, too anxious about appearing confident and in control. "You don’t have much real experience, do you?" she asked, keeping her head down. "On productions, I mean." When she glanced up to look at Max, she colored, then dropped her head again.
Max perched on the edge of a battered sofa. He noticed a small stain on his pants leg and quickly moved his elbow to cover it. He leaned in and thought about her question for a moment. He had noticed her blush and wondered why. He tried to picture them together, going out, kissing. It was difficult to imagine, even for him. He didn’t think that any amount of filters or careful lighting or clever camera angles would help. Sad.
"I do have experience," Max said at last. "Just not in Los Angeles. I can write. I’m very fast, and I direct too. I did five short films in school. I’ve always had a secret love of Film Noir. But Fellini, he’s my idea of directing. The man captures the absurd in the smallest detail."
Max laughed then and hunched farther forward. He seemed coiled and ready to spring at her. His head bobbed, his whole body moved. The sofa squeaked from his motion.
"I did my MA in a year. My thesis compared the work of the Italian masters and their role in contemporary world cinema. I –"
"That’s very interesting, Max. Do you have your own car?"
Max blinked four times rapidly. "Car? I have a car. But I thought… I mean you led me to believe that… Don’t you have a slate of new productions?"
She looked up now, her eyes settling on a point somewhere behind him. Max resisted the urge to turn around.
"We do," she said. "And we’re looking for people to work on those productions. But they have to have a car. It’s a good thing you do. You’ll do just fine. But Mr. Smigrod makes the final decisions around here."
"What, exactly, do you produce? I found a listing for a show called Trial And Error. Is Mr. Smigrod still doing game shows?"
"Not exactly. We do adult entertainment now."
Adult entertainment? Max moved his elbow off his leg and thought that the stain had grown bigger. Was there another spot farther down?.
"Do you mean art films?" Max asked slowly and with great hesitation.
The woman started laughing, a terrible hacking sound. The break allowed Max to turn his intense scrutiny away from her and, for the first time in the interview, to take in the details of the office. The furniture was used, badly. Even the typewriter was not an electric. There were a couple of posters on the cheaply paneled walls. All of them had barely clad young girls in suggestive poses. Love Girls From Hell, one of the titles ran. She Does, read another.
The woman stopped laughing. Her eyes flicked toward him and she colored again only to look away. She patted her hair. None of the curls moved.
"We like to think of our adult films as artistic. We have to or the law comes after us." She laughed again.
Max tried to reconcile the stark images of opening master shots — the master shots he conceived in his dreams — with the posters of the almost naked girls on the walls. He could see the Italian directors standing off in the distance, their arms folded, shaking their heads no. He was confused and wanted time to think. He needed a job — a job in production — but this? He wasn’t even sure what "this" was.
The woman began speaking again, her words breaking in. "As I said," she told him. "Mr. Smigrod makes the ultimate decision. But I think you have a real good chance."
For the first time in the interview, she looked directly at him. Her eyes were different colors and bordered on interesting. They were her best feature and helped her otherwise mousey look. "I’d like to have you," she said. "I mean, have you work here." She coughed and blushed once more, looking away. "Why don’t I just take your résumé in to him and see if he wants to meet you."
Max could hear Smigrod shouting from behind a thin veneer door.
"What ya doin’ to me, Norma? What ya bringin’ me? I don’t care what fancy smancy schools he went to. That doesn’t mean squat to me. I need a driver, not an artist. Fellini? Jesus P. Christ. You know what kinda films we make here, Norma. Or are you going artsy on me, too? Get him outta here. Tell him the job’s filled."
There was a low murmur that Max didn’t catch.
"I don’t care if you think he’s cute. And don’t you say nothing about your mother being my sister. I’m not hiring him. Go out there and tell him. I never went to no fancy school. Hell, I hardly got out of high school. You tell him."
Max was jerked from that awful bungalow back to one warm afternoon close to the beach in Santa Monica when He found himself confronted by a small homeless man dressed in khakis and a bright orange hunting cap.
"You got a quarter?" a voice demanded, the same voice as Seymour Smigrod’s. The voice was low and hoarse as if it was used to yelling to make itself heard. "You got a quarter? I’m talking to you. You got a quarter?"
The homeless man put his hand out. His palm was black, the skin rough and weather-beaten.
"What’s a matter? You deaf?" the homeless man demanded. "He’s deaf. The moron is deaf," the homeless man shouted, then laughed shrilly, his laughter touched by madness. There were a pair of elderly couples walking by. They averted their eyes.
Max was back on the bluff and the homeless man was insistently jabbing with his black paw. Max looked around for help. He was alone, feeling annoyed. "I want a quarter. I’m hungry."
"I told you," Max said. "I don’t have a quarter. Leave me alone."
"He don’t have it. He don’t have it. You all have it," the little man cackled.
Max peered at the homeless man with a morbid fascination and took in the ratty clothes caked with filth so that only a trace of the original color of the fabric showed through. One toe peeked from a hole in the man’s shoe. The nail was painted red, and then Max realized the man’s foot was leaking blood. "Gimme some money," the man demanded again.
Max took a step forward, trying to be menacing. The homeless man went into a crouch. "You want some of this? You want some of this? Come on. Come on. Fucking come on. Do it."
For a second Max considered hitting him, or kicking him, or throwing him to the ground, then thought the man might have a knife. Without another word, Max whirled around and began running and didn’t stop until he was three or four hundred yards away. Finally, his run ended, Max leaned against a bench, a few flecks of green paint chipping off onto his leg. A few extra sprints weren’t going to hurt him. The homeless man was out of sight and that made Max feel immediately better.
Max’s heart rate dropped to normal. He sat on the bench. The sun was lower in the sky and a wet chill crept into the air which penetrated his thin shirt. Relieved, Max leaned back on the bench and must have dozed.
Max did finally land a job in the Business, though he had waited nearly a year for it. The offer came by phone.
"It’s not much, but it’s a chance to get in on the ground floor," the woman told him.
"When do you want me?" he answered without hesitation.
Max leaped into the air, both arms raised, knocking a stack of papers onto the floor. Never mind that. This was the beginning. He was sure. The first step in realizing his vision. A job. A job.
"Tomorrow, 9 A.M.," she answered.
Max spent the rest of the day preparing, doing as much research as he could on Valley National Studios. He knew what films were in production. He knew about their development slate. He knew some of the names of the executives and something about the financial performance of the studio over the last few years. Technically he was ready, too. He knew lens sizes, footage counts, and what situation required an "inky dinky" light or a "10k."
Max was prepared to tell all of this to the head of personnel, a woman named Heather Heatherman. Twenty years before, she had been pretty; now, she was well lined. "I was an actress. Didn’t want to get out of the Business so I took a job like this. The company’s been good to me. Like a family. That’s how it is here at Valley National Studios. That’s how we feel about all our employees."
"Can we talk about my duties? You know I want to direct. I’ve studied all the masters –"
"There won’t be much need for that," she told him. She picked a set of car keys off her desk and jangled them in the air. Max found the noise grating. Her long nails were lacquered the color of dried blood. The index finger was slightly chipped, exposing plastic underneath. "Keys to the President’s Mercedes," she went on. "Go fill it with gas. When you’re done, come back and you can take out another car. The executives think it’s a waste of their valuable time to get gas. I quite agree."
She jangled the keys again. "Go and do a good job."
Max spent weeks filling up the executives’ cars. He visited stations all over Hollywood. After that, he was promoted into the mailroom.
"You’ll have great stories to tell in you memoirs," Ms. Heatherman said to him as she gave him the promotion. "The great ones started in the mailroom. You started below that. You’ll go far."
Max spent mornings making the office rounds. He maintained a cheerful disposition and was attentive and courteous. But the conversations he overheard while delivering the mail seemed to be spoken in another language. Like the tall and thin woman with perfectly coiffed gray hair who every day slammed down the phone and yelled, "We ain’t doing brain surgery here." Or the Head of Business Affairs who shouted, “All right. All right. I’ll get into it with David. Anything else?"
Max wished he understood what it all meant. He wished he could keep the players straight and figure out who mattered.
Max picked up the mail and continued on his rounds.