In this book excerpt, an aspiring filmmaker tries to climb the Hollywood ladder in spite of his evil boss. 2,269 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Zach celebrated Carson’s birthday by treating him to lunch at Spago in Beverly Hills where Wolfgang Puck prepared a special meal for them. And for Christmas, Carson received a Prada cashmere sweater. He wore it to the office once, so Zach would see it, then returned the sweater and put the balance toward a designer suit on sale at Macy’s. “Cashmere in Los Angeles?” Carson had remarked. “Not exactly practical. A Hugo Boss suit on the other hand…”
Those instances of solicitousness, however, paled by comparison to the number of times Zach had called Carson “a second-class cretin because you’re not even good enough to be first class” and threatened to “fire your sorry ass if you so much as breathe funny for the rest of the day.”
The stress, which sometimes breached Carson’s high tolerance level, had led him to consider stealing a tranq or two from the pharmacy in Zach’s bottom desk drawer. His boss would never know since, like many of the other office execs, he popped pills by the hour.
“Seriously, dude?” Jamie had chided when Carson mentioned it. “Is that the road you want to head down: sucking pills like they were Altoids?”
“No, no, you’re right,” Carson conceded. “But some days, it’s very tempting.”
The opportunity to work for one of the top producers in the industry right out of college was not a matter of happenstance. Carson had been hired on the recommendation of Prof. David Mendoza, who had mentored Carson and Jamie at Cal U School of Film and was one of Zach Corrigan’s closest confidantes. The two had met when Mendoza was working on his doctorate in film and interviewed Corrigan for his thesis, which evolved into a published bio about the maverick producer. Zach often showed Mendoza rough cuts of his films and asked for suggestions on how to improve them. Mendoza had keen cinematic instincts and, over the years, Corrigan had repeatedly tried to hire him.
The professor had politely refused. “I prefer to be on the outside looking in,” Mendoza had said. “I love movies and I know enough about the business that, if I became part of it, I might lose that love.”
Jamie and Carson had hit the ground running in their freshman year. They were finally in an environment where everyone inhaled the same refined celluloid air, where being labeled a film geek was deemed high praise, and where no movie reference was so arcane that at least ten people in the room didn’t get it. The student body was cleaved in two between those who wanted to be the next Spielberg or Lucas, and those who aspired to be the new generation’s Coen brothers or Woody Allen.
During their years at Cal U and after graduation, Jamie and Carson spent many of their free evenings at Mendoza’s home in Echo Park: having dinner, watching movies on his giant TV and talking late into the night.
When Carson and Jamie weren’t watching and studying movies, they were planning projects of their own. Because of their tongue-in-groove working relationship and the almost seventy shorts they had churned out in prep school, they had a slight edge on many of their classmates. Several of them also had filmmaking experience, but individually none could compete with the creative symbiosis between the duo.
Carson was the conceptualist and Jamie the technician, the guy who helped his partner shape and actualize his sometimes overly ambitious or diffuse projects. They consistently brought out the best in each other. And while the collaborations were not strife free, the arguments were always productive. On the rare occasion when their disagreements devolved into shouting matches, one or the other would eventually concede — Carson, more often than not — and later acknowledge the error of his ways.
Mendoza personally supervised a number of their projects and they came to appreciate his “third eye” which never failed to improve the finished product. He was impressed by them from the start, he said, claiming that he found their work to be “very retro.”
“That’s a compliment?” Carson asked, almost alarmed.
“Only if you believe that the old Hollywood, where many commercial films also had artistic merit, is preferable to today’s bifurcation of schlocky mega-blockbusters and insular art house movies. What’s amazing is how you’ve unconsciously incorporated ideas from the great filmmakers,” the professor continued.
“I’m still hearing derivative,” Carson argued.
“Yeah, I’m not saying that we’re completely original,” Jamie added, “I mean who is? But our movies are very personal, for better or worse.”
“Look,” Mendoza explained, “all filmmakers borrow from the past. It’s how you filter it through your own sensibilities that makes the difference. And I see moments in your work that are very Carson and others that scream Jamie.”
“So, I guess we’re pretty good,” Carson said, buoyed by Mendoza’s praise.
“Let’s not get our award acceptance speeches ready just yet,” Mendoza said. “What I meant was that, as a team, you have great potential. You’re both talented individually, and if you can manage to continue working together without killing each other, you might someday create magic.”
With graduation looming, Carson and Jamie began to scrounge around for work. Even if they planned to eventually make films together, Mendoza encouraged them to get some hands-on experience in the business. “It’ll give you exposure to all the players so that when you strike out on your own, you’ll have good insider knowledge.”
Despite his placatory demeanor, or perhaps because of it, Jamie was the first to land a job as an assistant position at a post-production house. Several months later, he segued to a junior editing gig at the company. Not the end of the rainbow for sure, but at least he wasn’t doing temp work or getting people coffee and taking their dogs to the vet.
Carson went on several entry-level interviews and lost out on every single one to men and women with far more experience. “Looks like the closest I’m going to get to the movie business is measuring Ben Affleck’s inseam at Saks,” he grumbled.
“You just graduated two months ago, relax,” Jamie said.
“Easy for you to say. You already have a job,” Carson shot back.
“A job, which as you kindly pointed out, is way beneath me and probably a total dead end,” he reminded Carson.
“Why do you listen to anything I say? I certainly don’t,” he observed.
One night Carson was fast asleep when the phone rang. Noticing Mendoza’s name on the caller ID, he immediately picked up.
“Carson, did I catch you at a bad time?” David asked.
“No, not at all,” he said. “What’s up, professor?”
“David,” he corrected him. “Do you think you might be interested in working for Zach Corrigan?”
“Are you kidding? I’d cut off my left nut just to shine his shoes.”
“Well, I don’t think surgery will be necessary,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m asking because I had dinner with Zach tonight and he mentioned that he needs a new second assistant. I told him I might know somebody.”
“I can be there in fifteen minutes,” Carson said.
“Carson, it’s ten o’clock at night,” Mendoza reminded him. “I’ll talk to him in the morning and set up a meeting for you.”
“Oh my god, thank you so much Professor Mendoza,” Carson said.
“David, please” he repeated. “I’m no longer your teacher. And don’t thank me just yet. But I do think he’d be lucky to have you.”
Carson was pacing the living room and pretending to interview himself when Jamie got home from the movies.
“Who are you talking to?” Jamie said and Carson scowled at him. In his mind, he’d been dazzling Zach Corrigan with his wit and confidence and Jamie was rudely interrupting. He told Jamie’s about Mendoza’s phone call and the potential interview. “Do you think I have a chance?” Carson asked, his composure rattled by a sudden case of the jitters.
“Well, Mendoza and Corrigan are pretty close. With his recommendation I’d say the job is yours to lose.”
“That was so nice of him, and so unexpected,” Carson said.
“Yes, it was nice; but hardly unexpected,” Jamie said. “He’s been our cheerleader for the past four years.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Carson said, sounding distracted. Jamie could tell he’d already tuned him out and moved on to other concerns – such as the prospect of working for a mogul like Zach Corrigan. “Come, help me pick out my outfit for the interview.”
“But I’m beat,” Jamie said.
“Stop thinking of yourself for once,” Carson snapped.
Now, Carson’s daily routine at Timbuktu Productions chugged along with deadening predictability. If Zach asked him to whip up another frothy cappuccino, Carson feared that instead of sprinkling cinnamon on it, he might substitute arsenic. He followed up on every prospective job opening for which he might be qualified and sat through a few promising interviews. But, sadly, no offers.
In light of Jamie’s recent opportunity to be an assistant editor on a low-budget movie, Carson worried that, for the first time in his life, his mojo had deserted him. His body visibly twitched when he was sitting at his desk with nothing more creative to do than keep Zach’s chaotic life in order.
And then, imperceptibly at first, his situation changed. He landed on the short list for a position at Sweet Talk Films, a family-oriented production company. Not exactly his idea of nirvana, but an upward move nonetheless. A year or two working on G- and PG-rated fare and he’d be in position for a more suitable gig.
The opening had come to his attention via Jamie who’d recently landed an agent who’d managed to get him some cable TV editing work, including a film for the Hallmark Channel produced by Sweet Talk Films. It was a routine assignment, but at least it paid the bills.
When Jamie got wind of the opening at Sweet Talk, he immediately alerted Carson who was among the first applicants. Mindful of how insane Zach became when he suspected one of his people was casting his net, Carson insisted on a “Deep Throat” meeting on a Saturday afternoon with Sweet Talk’s head of production at a seedy shopping mall deep in the Valley where no one who was anyone in the business would be caught dead. The production chief laughed when he heard the request but understood completely. “I wouldn’t want to pick up Variety and read about you being skinned alive by Zach at a ritual ceremony outside his summer house on Carbon Beach,” the man joked.
“Good one,” Carson said, offering up a “professional” laugh. (A “professional” laugh in Hollywood is hollow merriment which substitutes volume for actual mirth). The initial interview went well as did the second and third. For the next two weeks, Carson waited. The position was now down to him and one other person. With each passing day, he became increasingly terrified that Zach might find out. Zach seemed to possess an uncanny sixth sense about which one of his employees was being courted by a rival.
When Carson was anxious, he got sloppy. The first time, when he tripped bringing Zach his morning cappuccino, he was reprimanded and forced to get down on his knees and mop up the spill. The second faux pas was even more serious. One morning, he allowed a phone call from George Clooney to ring through to voice mail. Zach didn’t say a word. He merely eyed Carson with the intensity of a human laser, returned to his office and slammed the door.
For the rest of the day, Carson waited for Zach to exact retribution. He deliberately kept his head down when his boss stormed into the office after lunch with murder in his eyes. But Zach brushed right past his desk and came to rest in front of Damian Pierce, a razor-sharp junior production executive and one of Zach’s favored disciples, whom he was grooming for bigger and better.
From the smoke coming out of his nose, Carson anticipated homicide or at least voluntary manslaughter. Instead Zach merely continued snorting, his chest rising and falling. Damien’s own breathing turned shallow and he turned a whiter shade of pale. Quietly, he began to fumble through his desk drawers, retrieving a few essential items, which he deposited into the Gucci leather briefcase Zach had bought him for Christmas. Then he backed his chair away from the desk, got up and walked out of the office on tiptoe. No goodbyes, no apologies.
The entire office gaped in horrified amazement as Damien vanished, almost without a trace. No one seemed to have a clue as what sin he’d committed, though a week later Variety announced his appointment to a senior position at Warner Bros. Carson feared that, as the person in closest contact with Zach, he would bear the brunt of his anger for the rest of the day, week or month; or however long it took for Zach to work the betrayal through his system.
Zach picked up a bound sheaf of papers from Damien’s desk and walked over to Carson. His first thought was, “Oh no, he’s going to throw them at me.” But Zach just stood over him panting until Carson was completely unnerved.
Then, plop. The bound script crashed onto his desk.
“Read it,” Zach ordered. “Give me your thoughts. Then set up a preliminary meeting with the writer.”
Carson nodded and raised his eyes to see Zach’s face descending in slow motion. He laid a paternal kiss on Carson’s forehead. “Don’t fuck this up.”
An excerpt from Richard Natale’s novel The Rushes published May 21, 2018, by Avid Publishing LLC.