The director and script supervisor of TV’s successful sci-fi show are curious about its creator. 3,106 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The soundstage set is quiet except for the clicks and whirs of the Mitchell 35mm BNC camera, its lens lingering on the face of a very young actress lying in a hospital bed. After a beat, the girl says, "Now people won’t be scared of me!" It’s shlock but she nails it. Now for the reveal: one eye in the center of her head and fresh bloody bandages covering both halves of her face. She’s a horrifyingly adorable cyclops, and her beaming actress mother speaks. "Dr. Vincent, you’ve done such a wonderful job, better than your father did on me years ago!" The mother, too, has one eye. So do the father and the doctor. “But why does that two-eye mutation still keep happening to everyone!?"
"Cut!" yells a voice offstage. Then another voice yells, "That’s a wrap on Episode Eight. Thanks, everyone!!"
A set bell rings. The lights go up. The director, Tom Sanders, slaps the TV series’ creator on the back and says, "Another one in the can, Hollinger! Love the title, too — See Like Me," using his hands to mimic a marquee. "I don’t know where you get the ideas for these episodes, but you’ve sure got a way with words!"
Clayton Hollinger is 39 years old, single, affable, tall, strong, and black. The year is 1957 and The Galleys is the most popular show in the country, tuned into every Saturday night by viewers numbering in the tens of millions. "Thanks, Tom. I suppose it all comes from up here," Clayton says, putting a finger to his temple. “And believe me, it’s good to get it all out."
Tom replies, laughing, "I wouldn’t want some of the creatures you come up with in my attic, either."
Clayton puts his hand on Tom’s shoulder. "Well, it’s been a pleasure having you direct another episode. You’re quite possibly the best I’ve worked with."
Tom relishes the praise. "Quite the compliment coming from you, Clayton, and much appreciated."
Clayton’s seemingly sudden arrival on the Hollywood scene stumps many a columnist, who write about "the black writer who has attained such prominence in white-dominated-Hollywood" and how "he is keeping the public guessing by politely refusing any and all interview requests. His standard excuse is that he’s too busy and wants to focus on delivering a quality broadcast to fans and viewers of the show." That would be enough for most media, but not the gossip rags trying to spin headlines about Clayton as a "meteoric mystery."
Clayton’s rapid rise also piques the interest of the suits at the network. But seeing the genre-busting show’s viewer numbers increase each week, and the subsequent rise in advertising revenue that accounts for massive profits, silences most of their questions. "Real bang for the buck!" one proudly boasts at a weekly meeting. "So what if our mysterious writer isn’t the same color as we are?”
But not everyone on the set is so supportive. Betty Alperton, a 26-year-old Alabama transplant and script supervisor whose aspiration is to write and produce, has her doubts. This evening, Betty pushes past a group of gaffers and catches up with Tom and Clayton as they make their way out of the soundstage.
"Mr. Hollinger? Mr. Hollinger?,” she politely calls after him, then more insistently demands, “Mr. Hollinger!"
Clayton turns around. Upon seeing Betty, he breaks into a broad grin and says warmly, "Hello Betty. But he also gives a knowing nod to Tom who now stands closer to Clayton’s side than he had on the walk out. Tom knows of Betty’s ambition and has tried during the last few days of Episode Eight’s production to subtly steer her away from Clayton. She’s up to something, Tom thinks, but what exactly, he can’t say. His gut feeling is that it’s not going to keep her employed with the show for a second season. Betty has no clue she’s so transparent but boy if she did, Tom thinks, she could be dangerous.
"Betty, how can we help you?" says Tom, physically standing between her and Clayton. "Why don’t you let us get to the production meeting because we’re already late. And whatever it is you need, I’m sure you can bring it up with Mr. Hollinger at tomorrow’s crew meeting. Sound good, sweetheart?"
Betty screws up her face. "I was just saying hello to Mr. Hollinger. But I’ve been trying to talk to you, Tom, for the last three weeks. It’s very important!”
"To me?" Tom says, surprised. He thinks, sweet lord, just what the heck does she need to talk to me about? But instead Tom softens his tone and says out loud, "Well, I can make a little time for you right now. Clayton, why don’t you go on ahead. I’ll come by in a few minutes and you can catch me up."
Clayton eyes the pair and a small smile creeps into the corners of his mouth, almost as if both sides of his lips were independently expressing two different emotions. Plainly, the side directed at Tom is one of "Good luck, you’re on your own now." And the side facing Betty is wary. But Clayton doesn’t see any trouble coming. Not yet. "Sure thing. I’ll see you upstairs, Tom. Take care, Betty."
As Clayton turns to walk away, Betty shouts after him, "I do still want to talk to you about that idea for an episode that I just know you will love!" Clayton either doesn’t hear her, or is ignoring her. Either way, he doesn’t turn around but instead continues walking around a corner and out of sight.
Tom turns to Betty and chides, "That’s not the way you should go about that sort of thing."
"Tell me, Tom, how would one go about it then?" she replies, maddeningly.
Tom is at a loss for words. He can’t shake his distaste for her opportunistic outburst. "What is it you wanted to talk to me about, Betty?"
"Well, it’s not really what. It’s who. It’s Clayton, Tom. Have you noticed anything odd about him?"
"Odd? How do you mean," Tom says, looking closely into her eyes, searching for an ulterior motive but finding only an inquisitive nature.
Betty stares back at Tom. "Odd as in, have you ever seen him leave the studio?"
Tom laughs. "Have I ever what?"
"Seen him leave the studio, as in exit the soundstage, get in a car and drive out the gates? Maybe to Burbank, or Sherman Oaks, or even Santa Monica? Have you ever seen him outside of work? At a party or a premiere or drinks at the Formosa? Had him over to dinner at your home?"
It only takes Tom a few seconds to run through all her questions, and the answer to each is a definitive no. But he blurts out, "What are you getting at, Betty?"
Betty looks around, making sure no one is listening. When she is certain, she leans into him and says in a conspiratorial whisper, "I know where he goes."
"And where is that? Torrance?" Tom says, amused.
"Further than that," she says quietly. Tom realizes Betty isn’t joking but can’t help to break into a low chortle. "What’s further than Torrance?"
"I’m serious, Tom. This isn’t a joke. I followed him one night, I had to know. I didn’t tail him all the way, but I think I will this next time," she says.
"Now look here, Betty. What is it you’re cooking up? Following Clayton, tailing him god-knows-where. Are you mad? This is the sort of obsession that could get a gal fired, even banned from the industry. Do you want to make a name for yourself that way, if you catch my drift?" Tom levels a finger in Betty’s face.
She almost stomps with indignation. "Oh sure, the script girl turned stalker. Well, I can assure you it’s nothing like that. I’m sorry I decided to confide in you." She turns in a huff but Tom grabs her by the arm. "Let me go," she spits.
Tom is worried not just about Betty, but what might happen if he doesn’t see this all play out, so he decides to humor the poor girl. "I’m sorry. You confided in me and I need to listen, Betty." He releases his grip on her arm. She relaxes.
"Don’t just listen then. Meet me by Stage 19 tomorrow morning at 5 a.m.. Don’t be late, Tom. And do a walk-on through the Melrose Gate." She turns to go, but turns right back and says, "And wear a real hat, not just a figurative one."
Before he can answer, she is gone. Tom continues to the production meeting and keeps his eyes on Clayton, looking for anything out of the ordinary, while at the same time listening to the pitch for the next episode. All Tom sees is an extraordinarily talented young man getting everyone on board with a truly tremendous idea from conception to end with plot twists, exposition and even shot lists for Episodes Nine. "Jesus, if we pull this off, we’ll all win Emmys," someone gushes.
After several cups of coffee, some brainstorming and lots of roast beef sandwiches, the meeting ends. It’s nearly midnight. Clayton looks at his watch and calls it. "Get some sleep, fellas. I’ll have pages for you tomorrow morning." Clayton stifles a yawn, his energy apparently spent.
Tom turns to walk towards the parking lot and for the first time in three months notices that Clayton turns to walk the opposite way. That’s odd, Tom thinks, where is he going? Clearly, that conversation with Betty had really gotten to him. But he’ll for sure meet her in the morning. He climbs into his car, a red Alfa Romeo Giulietta Roadster MotoeXotica, starts the engine and heads towards the gate. He stops to inform Ralph, the night guard, that he’ll be needing a walk-on pass for the following day. "Car needing service, Mr. Sanders?" asks Ralph. "If so I’ve got a cousin in Van Nuys who could take a look at it for you—"
Tom cuts him off. "Just going to let the wife take her for the day to do some errands. Probably a day of beauty, for which we will both benefit," he winks.
Driving home to Burbank is quick work at this time of night and he pulls into the driveway of a neatly kept 1940s tract home similar in size and footprint to his neighbor’s and their neighbor’s and so on – except for the Alfa roadster in the driveway. The porch light is on and Tom hangs his hat and quietly walks into the kitchen where he finds a sweet note from his wife on the table pointing him to a plateful of dinner kept warm in the oven under tinfoil wrapping. He wolfs down the generous slices of turkey, green peas and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. He wonders if Clayton is at his home, too, and if so where it is, and if he has a wife or a girlfriend and if he’s eating something similar.
Tom has never thought about Clayton like this before.
Early the next morning, Tom wakes up with a start, grabs a quick shower, and dresses so hurriedly he’s carrying his tie rolled up in his hand. He doesn’t forget a hat, per Betty’s instructions. He kisses his still sleeping wife softly on the head and rushes to his car, backs out of the driveway and sets out towards the studio. He parks a few blocks away and walks up to the Melrose Gate where a hunched-over Ralph snores at his station, illuminated by soft dusk and the flood lights of the entrance. "Ralph, it’s Tom. Wake up!"
Ralph jolts awake. "Sorry, sir! I was just closing my eyes. Please don’t tell any—"
Tom stops him. "Your secret is safe with me, as long as you don’t let anyone know you saw me here this early. I wouldn’t want to get a reputation as a workaholic." Ralph laughs and turns the hand crank to open the gate.
Tom heads straight for Stage 19. He hears a whistle then a hiss. It’s Betty, and she motions to him. She’s garbed in a ridiculous get-up of a trenchcoat, Baker Boy beret and cat’s eye sunglasses as she pops up from behind a dumpster. Tom almost breaks into a very loud guffaw at the sight of her.
"Perfect timing, Tom! It’s about to happen!" she says breathlessly.
"Listen Betty," says Tom, "I was thinking a lot about what you were telling me last night and I—"
"Shhhh!" she admonishes him. She directs his attention to an alleyway opposite the stage cluttered with production carts, lighting equipment, cans of paint and brushes, tarps and wooden slats leaning up against the outside walls.
The air feels different suddenly, and an indiscernible sense of what can only be described as an optic change takes place. Tom rubs his eyes and Betty stares straight forward, grabbing Tom’s arm and squeezing it. Tom lets out a "What the—?" and Betty’s grip gets tighter, silencing him once again.
In what his mind can only distinguish as a sudden rip in his field of vision, a bright light shines and suddenly the figure of a man walks through the warble and everything returns to normal. No electricity in the air. No wavering lines of sight. And Clayton Hollinger appears as if he’s just come from around an unseen corner and into the alleyway, when in fact he’s just entered the studio through an interdimensional portal that closes immediately behind him.
Betty pulls Tom down to the ground behind the dumpster and puts her manicured hand over his mouth because she knows he wants to scream. She whispers to Tom that tonight after work she’s planning to follow Clayton through that portal back to where he comes from and she wants Tom to bear witness to her exit and her return. Tom’s eyes widen even more but he nods passively.
The rest of the day proceeds as usual, with the crew arriving at their various call times, pre-production ramping up, the set being built, casting decisions made, and Clayton’s pages distributed by Betty to them all. Filming will begin in a few days on Episode Nine — its enigmatic title Soon, They Reckoned, Soon — a far-out tale Clayton has written about two men in 1853 Colorado waiting out an apocalypse in an abandoned gold mine shaft. Tom already has ideas how to portray the impending doom in this episode.
But Tom is still traumatized by what he’s seen and practically trembles when Clayton is nearby, prompting the writer at one point during the day to pull him aside and ask if everything is all right. "Sure is, Clayton. Just feeling a little drained, that’s all. I didn’t sleep well," Tom stutters.
"Why don’t you head home and get some rest? We can start anew tomorrow," offers Clayton. Tom almost agrees but sees a wary Betty eavesdropping on their conversation. She’s slowly shaking her head, No.
"I’ll tough it out, but thanks for that." Tom manages a smile.
It’s around 7 p.m. when Betty sidles up to Tom in a quiet corner of the newly built mine, careful not to disturb the set marks and camera tripods put in place moments before. "Tom, this is it. Clayton says he’s about to cut loose for the night. And I’m going to follow him so closely and so quickly he’ll have no choice but to take me with him. I suppose I’ll be back in the morning. All I ask is that you go home and come back tomorrow and wait for us to walk back through, OK?"
"Oh… Oh… OK," Tom stammers. He’s still having trouble wrapping his head around it all. Clayton is what? An alien? From another dimension? Who’s writing a TV series? Has Clayton hypnotized everyone or cast some sort of spell over the suits? Is this how it happened so quickly for him? Is that other place where all the ideas for The Galleys episodes come from? Tom’s mind is racing.
Back over by Stage 19, the alleyway is deserted. Clayton is walking towards it, not looking behind him. Betty watches from in back of the dumpster and as soon as Clayton rounds the corner, sure enough, the air begins to warble, the fissure becomes visible and Clayton quickens his pace towards the disturbance in the air. Betty knows this is her chance now, and she takes off right behind Clayton as he walks through the portal. They both disappear.
The next day, Tom is back on the lot at 5 a.m. and sprints over to Betty’s hiding place to wait, his eyes on the alleyway. Again, the air shakes, the warble comes, the fissure opens, and out walks Clayton. But he is alone, and this time has a pained look of concern on his face.
Tom wonders what happened to the curious Betty Alperton — and then decides maybe it was for the best. The next week there’s talk on the set by a few folks that Betty had quit in a huff. They stop wondering about her a few days into filming. Tom directs a fine episode, and the network looks forward to another successful airing of The Galleys. The next episode will be the last of the season, and the producers and a new script girl gather until late listening to Clayton pitch notes. He promises even more fantastic pages going into Season Two.
Tom never says a word about what he saw in the alleyway. But as he drives home night after night, he plays it over and over in his head. Soon the action mixes with all the shots he wants in Episode Ten entitled The Other Place in which curiosity gets the better of a gangster’s moll when she follows a mysterious loan shark into an alternate dimension and is trapped there forever.
Clayton soon reveals to everyone that, while he and Betty may have had their differences, he will very generously give her a co-writing credit on this particular episode because it was based on an idea she pitched to him. His only hope, he says, is that she’ll come back to work "one of these days" with even more ideas.
Tom isn’t sure he’ll be back for a second season, and it’s pretty clear to him Betty won’t. But she’d always wanted a credit, and boy did she get it.
This story first posted here on November 4, 2015. Television Fiction package for Emmy Season