Who’ll be tapped to tame a young starlet with wild ways? 2,762 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It was two o’ clock in the morning and Caitlin Harper was weaving her way east on Sunset Boulevard in her Cadillac Escalade. She’d had a lease on that enormous black beast for all of two days. Three of her pals were on board. Caitlin had sworn up and down to her agents, her manager (who was also her mother), her lawyer, possibly her accountant and to her one friend who had some common sense, that at night she would always have a driver. She would never, day or night, drive after drinking. She probably meant it when she said it, but Caitlin was twenty years old and famous. She did whatever she wanted to do whenever she wanted to do it. Caitlin had recently seen Bonnie And Clyde and was in a Faye Dunaway mood. She’d taken to wearing a black beret, imagining herself an outlaw on the run.
Caitlin Harper might have been the only pop diva I had heard of. That’s because everybody had heard of her. You couldn’t look at a screen or a magazine without encountering her round and lubricious face. She pouted her way across the American media with her high and swollen breasts pushed nearly out of her famous swooning necklines. I couldn’t name any of the songs she was associated with though I had seen a few of her movies.
On this night all that weaving from lane to lane, complicated by those Dunaway dreams, sent her diagonally across Sunset, over the lushly planted road-divider and into a telephone pole near the Beverly Hills Hotel. The pink palace as it was known was the property of the Sultan of Brunei, a personage that I’m sure Caitlin had never heard of though it’s entirely possible that the Sultan had heard of her. A woman in one of the big houses on Foothill Road was awakened by the noise and called in the accident. Caitlin had been drinking, which is what she was usually doing at two In the morning, unless she was having sex or possibly both at once. She was wearing her seatbelt, though I doubt it was buckled at the moment she wrapped the Escalade around that pole. It was a triumph of ingenuity that despite the inconvenience of interference from two airbags, Caitlin had enough of her wits about her to buckle up even if It was too late to do much good. Caitlin had banged her head on the side window which caused a mild concussion, but that was all. Concussions are one of the many things that seatbelts prevent. No one seemed interested in such pesky details. Her chums were bounced around a bit though the serious damage was to the pole and the Escalade.
The Beverly Hills cop who was first on the scene, one Officer Carl Shestak, a tower of a man not burdened with a sense of humor recognized Caitlin, though he certainly didn’t acknowledge her celebrity. He examined her license and registration and asked, "Have you been drinking?" It was like asking if a fish had been swimming.
Maybe it was dizziness from the concussion, or maybe it was because she had on that Bonnie Parker beret, but her answer was, "We rob banks." It didn’t make a lot of sense but it was enough to ring a few bells for Officer Shestak. "Show me your hands," he said. And when she did, he snapped on the cuffs, which produced a surprised "Hey" from Caitlin. The officer ignored her and called in the arrest, asking for backup and a tow truck.
When the additional patrol car arrived, Officer Shestak administered the PAS test, for Preliminary Alcohol Screening, and declared Caitlin "inebriated at the scene." It could have been the logline for her life thus far.
The police were used to rich kids smashing up expensive cars. But Caitlin, always seemed to be in some stage of breaking the law. She smashed up expensive cars, was drunk in public, had famous romances with men and women and was known to slap security guards. To Caitlin, any brush with the police was trivial and a sign of how ridiculous the laws of the adult world were. The cops took Caitlin to Cedars-Sinai for blood and urine tests. Mort Levin, Caitlin’s lawyer, showed up and managed a shocked look at this clear miscarriage of justice while he made extravagant threats about police brutality and false imprisonment. Mort’s bombast got Caitlin un-cuffed, but Officer Shestak couldn’t release her on his own.
The city’s tow service impounded the Escalade. The next day the “Smash-up," as one of the more overheated blogs called it, was not Caitlin’s first late night auto accident. Caitlin wound up spending several hours in a holding cell, paying the eighteen hundred dollar fine — it was Beverly Hills, so she put it on a credit card — and having her driver’s license suspended for six months. The Beverly Hills city attorney wanted the six months to be a probationary period, which would have required Caitlin to wear a monitoring bracelet on her ankle. It appealed to Caitlin who saw it as a fashion opportunity. She wound up with the suspension but no monitoring device. In turn, Caitlin was required to take a course in traffic safety. She went a few times, signed autographs for the other miscreants, found the whole thing a bore and stopped going, certain that someone in her employ would sort it all out.
When I first got to know Caitlin, she was still occupying the outer shores of my mind, the way a senator from another state might. That changed. And so did I.
At the time I was unhappily but lucratively employed in the completion bond business, a little known and arcane branch of movie financing. A completion bond is an insurance policy on an unfinished movie. For a few percentage points of the budget, we guarantee that a film will be delivered on budget and on schedule. The riskier the venture, the more we charge. When a production goes haywire — and some always do and always will — we shut it down and salvage what we can. Then we have to pay off the banks or the Investors. It’s a rough business full of sleazy operators and no place for refined cinematic sensibilities.
Caitlin’s movies at the time were teenage comedies none of which my company Hollywood Assurance, had bonded. Caitlin had the on-screen ease of a natural actor and she managed a variable sexiness that could be brooding one moment and in-your-face the next. That and a little luck can take a girl a long way. When I met her, she was irritated that she was not yet twenty-one. She had taken up with a girlfriend and that sent the gossip blogs into a frenzy. She might as well have had "Calamity Ahead" tattooed on her forehead.
My introduction to Caitlin happened at a time when I was still reeling from my divorce, even though it had been final for more than a year and the marriage had been effectively over longer than that. I got into the completion bond business because my former life as a screenwriter was going nowhere. I had enough success and had made enough money to keep me hanging on. I was too famous to quit, as we said in the trade. I didn’t care for any of the movies that had my name attached. The few times I saw "Screenplay by Calvin Handleman" I usually felt ill. When I saw it on yet another unmade script, I just closed the drawer. I was forty-seven years old and I didn’t want to spend my fifties piling up more unmade scripts no matter what they paid me for them. Well, maybe I cared about that part. But my price depended on having movies on the screen and those were few.
An agent who once represented me knew I was dissatisfied with screenwriting, like every other screenwriter. He told me Barney Golden was looking for someone. Barney ran Hollywood Assurance, a tiny completion bond shop that he called a boutique.
"I don’t know anything about all that," I said.
"You’ll learn. Barney’II teach you. All he knows is numbers. You know about production and scripts. Talk to him."
Barney Golden was in his early sixties, about fifteen years older than I was. But he was the boss and he certainly knew more about the bond business than I did. So it was, "Cal, my boy." It bothered me at first but like everything else with Barney, I got used to it. Barney never quite trusted my commitment to completion bonds. He was right. "You got to bring in business, Cal my boy. That’s the game." What he meant was that if all I did was service the bonds that he wrote, he might as well fire me and hire another bookkeeper.
Barney didn’t like the movies we dealt with any more than I did. He had made a lot of money by caring only if a picture "made its numbers," as he put it. Our offices were in Century City, that cool and forbidding mega-mall, a modernist’s revenge on office workers. I wasn’t crazy about maneuvering through the acres of parking garages and escalators that always seemed to me a sci-fi fantasy, just to get to my office.
Most bondsmen came from other branches of the insurance business. Those who had started out in the movies had been, typically, production managers or assistant directors, the upper end of the below-the-line world. Some were former agents. I was the only ex-screenwriter I knew of.
Barney had sold and serviced every sort of policy — real estate deals, medical malpractice, general liability, life insurance and my favorite, alien abduction insurance, before he discovered completion bonds. He didn’t know much about the movies he Insured. My background was useful to him. Barney subscribed to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and Screen International. They made him feel as if he was really In the movie business.
Barney and I were the whole company. He hired production managers on a freelance basis to vet the budgets and shooting schedules of the movies we bonded. There was a changing parade of receptionists and clerical help — young people desperate to become filmmakers. When they realized that all Barney and I did was move numbers around and they weren’t likely to meet anyone useful to them let alone movie stars, they lost interest in Hollywood Assurance. I knew how they felt.
After I had been with Barney for about a year, I was learning to accept the completion bond business. It wasn’t exactly a dream job, but it didn’t tax my soul and, compared to screenwriting, it was like taking my head out of an oven. Things were looking up.
Then l met Caitlin Harper. It wasn’t long before I knew I’d have to rethink my smart-ass thought about her having "Calamity Ahead" tattooed on her forehead. It was my forehead that was about to be decorated.
A bandit of a director, one Jimmy Sakamuru, had tricked up a script that was a loose version of Caitlin’s life. The script he had written was Overdrive, the story of a young singer who was a sexy natural who slept with girls and boys and who cracked up cars and threw drinks at photographers. Of course Caitlin wanted to play the part. The distributors were interested. Jimmy thought he had a movie.
The problem — the first of many — was that Caitlin was uninsurable. She was probably an alcoholic, had taken too many mysterious pharmaceuticals, dabbled in the harder stuff and had, famously, polymorphous sexual habits. Her last picture, Summer High, was never completed. Two weeks Into the schedule, after she had been enacting the title each night and day, she got loaded on cocaine, possibly heroin and a drugstore’s worth of opioids that she stuffed In her mouth until she threw up. Then she did it again. She was nineteen years old and for a while it didn’t look as if she’d see twenty. The picture was shut down and it was bloody. The bond company — not Hollywood Assurance — had to eat millions. The litigation went on and on. She had top lawyers, all led by Mort Levin, but that didn’t mean she would pay any attention to them. If she missed a meeting they just billed her and rescheduled. But she also ignored court dates. You can’t buy your way out of that.
After the Beverly Hills dustup, coming after the debacle of Summer High, Caitlin was out of show business. Without insurance, no one would write a bond for Overdrive, which meant no picture. Then the package, as we called it, landed on Barney’s desk.
"It’s a six-week shoot," he said to me. Barney always liked to use professional lingo. "Twenty million below-the-line." That was a big number and it focused my attention, which I have to admit often wandered when Barney was speaking. He usually priced a bond based on the below-the-line costs — which was pretty much for everything but the name actors, the director, the script costs, and the ludicrous fees for the myriad producers, most of whom did little more than steal money. In this case Caitlin would be the only name and she was in for ten million. I didn’t yet know what Jimmy’s fee was — a few million, probably. The script was worth about thirty cents, but it was probably in for another million. Barney, however, was focused on the twenty and he didn’t have to tell me what six percent of twenty million was.
"If they’re coming to us, everybody else must have passed," I said, probably unnecessarily.
"Why does that have to be?"
"Because we’re the Bad News Bears of the bond business," I said.
"If this works," Barney said, "we’re the Yankees." I laughed at that. Barney didn’t make jokes. He usually didn’ t even get jokes. "Cal, my boy, try to pay attention. The problem is they need help insuring her personally. Without that, there’s no movie. If we’re down big for the bond, I can spread some of that cheer around and her personal policy could become manageable."
In other words, Barney would give the insurance broker a kickback. "That girl is a time bomb. She could blow the whole thing up."
"You don’t know that," Barney said. "What if we have somebody with her every minute?"
"There is no right person to mind Caitlin Harper."
Barney ignored what he must have known was the truth. "Your friend the director has a bank letter-of-intent for the twenty. With that, the insurance and the bond, he can raise the above the line costs. Including his girl’s ten and whatever he’s down for."
"I wouldn’t exactly call him my friend."
"Why not? You know him."
"He fired me once. Somebody at the studio didn’t like my script. Firing me seemed a good way to blame a guy with responsibility but no authority. He should have backed me. He threw me to the wolves."
"So what? You think this is a schoolyard?"
"Jimmy knows how to maneuver. He’s a better producer than director."
Barney saw that as a virtue. He didn’t much care about Jimmy’s directing skills, which it must be said weren’t any worse than a lot of guys who worked more.
"We’ll meet with them both," he said. "I want to see what she’s like up close."
Barney liked pushing people around and making them grovel. Jimmy would oblige. As for La Harper, she didn’t beg.