An executive story editor tries to convince his studio to make a special screenplay. 2,489 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Mike’s job existed because no one in Hollywood wanted to read a screenplay. It made sense: they were tedious. Even the best ones were a chore to plow through and the worst were excruciating. Mike had wondered about this often since he had started running the story department. Part of it was that scripts weren’t designed for reading. A screenplay was a blueprint for building a movie; popcorn was inappropriate. They weren’t supposed to be fun. But they dismantled narrative in a mercilessly clever way, leaving the pieces – chunks of single-spaced description, columns of dialog, indented transitions – scattered on the page like the ruins of a children’s toy.
The most common solution was to skip the blocks of description and just read the dialogue. But more and more scripts were all action and the only spoken lines in six or seven pages were “Look out!” or “What the – ?” So you really had to at least skim the car chases and the knife fights.
For months every bad script Mike had seen involved someone named Bubba. He had never met anyone named Bubba, which was probably a good thing. But they were everywhere in the world of bad scripts. Whatever Bubba’s occupation, he always wound up declaiming it to the drippy girlfriend who objected to his heroics. “I’m a fireman, damn it,” He would say. Or, “I’m a cop, damn it.” And the girlfriend would invariably say “If you go out that door, I won’t be here when you get back.”
Another unavoidable part of the nightmare was the parking garage stalking sequence. It was sort of a pre-cliché: everybody who used it thought they were being original. The sooner these hackneyed items were deletedsig, the better.
People would be appropriately embarrassed when they said “24/7” or “The whole nine yards” or had people in chase scenes run to the top of buildings. He could do without the hero being thrown clear from the explosion, too; that was another favorite.
Dynamite was like some sort of picturesque slingshot in these scripts.“Tad is thrown clear of the explosion. He hits the ground in a tight roll and comes upright shooting,” was a typical example, culled from the last script Mike had read the previous weekend. It wasn’t supposed to be funny. But he was getting a little punch drunk. He’d been reading between twenty and fifty scripts a week for more than a year, as well as coordinating the work of fifteen freelance readers, taking notes at all story meetings and distributing them, dealing with writers and agents. He even did some filing when his secretary was out sick or just screwed things up in some especially creative way. His bosses were always at each others’ throats, scheming and conniving and blaming their failed plots on him.
Just last week, Elaine Littleton, Director of Development, had given a script to Mike and asked for a weekend read. Mike had farmed it out to Joe Toll, a 50-year old screenwriter who hadn’t sold a script since 2002. Joe had hated it, but Joe hated most scripts, so that was no surprise. The surprise was that the big boss, Travis Conklin, President of Production, was slipped the script from a famous aging actress who was trying to make a comeback. She was also sleeping with Conklin and didn’t want any bad coverage floating around the studio on her pet script. By that time it was too late to pull the project; Toll had already written it up.
Someone had to be blamed. Travis blamed Elaine, who blamed Mike, who would have liked to continue the game of pass-off but was reluctant. So Mike wrote new coverage. Nobody was going to know the difference. They just wanted to cover their ass. Then he was the hero when the plan worked.
But the intrigues were always more coming, and despite certain minor variations, they were always the same. Working there was a perfect nightmare of corporate life. The political maneuvering, the gossip and suspicion, the backstabbing and slander, were tediously inevitable. It was a function of the physical situation. Office workers got to go home at night; that was the essential saving difference. Rats killed each other when they were trapped this way, and they didn’t even have to deal with the beige carpeting and the fluorescent lights.
Mike could feel his mood decline as he drove to the studio; he could almost calibrate the inches with the serotonin levels in his brain.
He turned off Pico and nodded to the gate guard. He was no longer allowed to park outside his building; everyone below the level of VP had to use the big new parking structure at the other end of the lot. Ordinarily he didn’t mind the walk but he was tired this morning. Every time he walked up to the shabby stucco façade and into the musty stairwell, he recalled something his father had once said about Hollywood generally: “Glamor is a function of distance.” Up this close, it was about as alluring as Joan Crawford with a hangover. Of course, most of his colleagues had only the vaguest idea of who Joan Crawford was. “That old movie star with the wire hangers, right?”
He glanced at his watch as he walked down the long corridor to his office. Almost ten o’clock; he had an hour until the morning meeting but he was going to need the time to go over the coverage reports piled up on his desk from his motley crew of readers. He nodded at the secretaries working the computers in the cramped anterooms to their bosses’ offices. They flirted with him outrageously, but only because he was married. Mike knew that if Emma left him and he asked any of them out on a date, they would flee for the exits as if the building was on fire. But they were nice and the small doses of benign sexual innuendo they offered brightened up his mornings much more effectively than a second cup of coffee.
His own secretary was Lucy Talmadge. She was from Connecticut and she looked as if she had been ordered directly from the J. Crew catalog. He often wondered how those slim preppy young women with their “wet sand” khakis and “grape pulp” cotton pullovers actually lived; you couldn’t spend all your time with square jawed guys on sailboats or at picnics. Everyone was always smiling in the J. Crew catalog. Well, being great looking might have something to do with it. Of course they wanted you to think it was the clothes.
Lucy was quiet and hardworking. After Smith College, where she studied business administration, she married her high school sweetheart who was now working in the advertising department at the studio and was going bald at twenty seven. She was a very nice girl and (despite various filing mishaps) a competent secretary. She made excellent coffee and always called him Mr. Garth.
“You’ve got a lot of reading to do before the meeting today, Mr. Garth,” she said as he walked in. “Everyone was busy this weekend.”
There was indeed a stack of papers on his desk: readers’ reports on twenty-five or thirty scripts. He sat down and started to sort through them. They all followed the same form: a brief summary, a more detailed synopsis and a quick evaluation at the end. It was almost never necessary to read the body of the document. The capsule description at the top and the recommendation at the bottom were usually all you needed.
Mike enjoyed the pitiless gusto with which Joe Toll launched his attacks. Toll never liked anything, which made him an ideal reader: the more stuff he hated, the less Mike had to deal with. At least seventy-five percent of the scripts that cascaded through his office were hilariously awful and easy to dismiss. Another twenty-four percent were from respectable producers, new writers at big agencies, or old writers on the way down. If these screenplays had any real muscle behind them, they either didn’t go through the story department at all, or Travis Conklin made it clear that the coverage was just a formality. Most of these were professionally executed but uninspired and a certain amount of diplomacy was involved in rejecting them. But that wasn’t Mike’s job and it wasn’t his problem.
His problem was the last one percent.
Because once in a while a script crossed his desk that was actually good, better than good, wonderful; and he had to make a case for it with Elaine Littleton. As far as he knew, she had never made a similar case to Travis Conklin. If you were a writer in Hollywood and your script was submitted to the story department, your hopes stopped right at the south end of the second floor. No one had ever gotten by Littleton. She had a better record than the Berlin wall, and was unlikely to be knocked down any time soon.
Mike had only felt obliged to fight with her once. He had jokingly suggested he might take the matter up with Travis Conklin. That drained the humor out of the situation fast.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Elaine had said.
“No. Of course not,” Mike said hastily. “Sure, fine, whatever.”
He was backing out of her office as he talked.
“Oops,” Elaine’s blond secretary said.
Mike paused at the door. “How about ‘yikes!’?”
The problem was, no one ever told you the rules; you had to guess them and you learned them by guessing wrong. This was a big one: you didn’t appeal Littleton’s verdicts. He had filed the information away but he had never needed it again, and he hoped he never would. That was why the first piece of coverage he picked up that Monday morning was so alarming.
It was a script that Joe Toll had read over the weekend. Mike settled back to enjoy the usual sardonic hatchet job, but he could tell in a few sentences that something was seriously awry. Joe didn’t just like this script.
He loved it.
His evaluation at the bottom was no ordinary ‘recommend’. It read as follows: “If we don’t make this film it means the fucking vampires would rather suck stale blood out of other vampires than take the trouble to find a living body. It means the nuclear war already happened and the cockroaches have taken over the planet. It means my job is pointless and your job is a joke. It also means I quit because I don’t need this shit. I get enough frustration from my crazy wife.”
Mike read the coverage again. He thought of calling Joe but didn’t.
Hesitantly, Mike set aside the coverage report and pawed through the piles of paper on his desk for the script in question. He found it, and cleared a space for it on his blotter, and looked down at the title page.
Mike missed the morning meeting. Lucy looked in once when she heard his braying laughter. She thought he was choking on the donut she had brought him from the coffee cart. A quick glance into his office reassured her that he wasn’t dying. He was actually enjoying himself and in the shock of it she realized that she had never seen him having a good time before. She would have remembered that laugh.
Mike set the script down on Elaine Littleton’s desk.
It was just before noon and Elaine was on her third cup of Morning Thunder herbal tea. He could smell tobacco on her and knew she’d been outside recently, having a quick cigarette, huddled with other execs in the lee of the building several times a day, smoothing down the nap of their addiction, quietly discussing scripts and projects and deals. Mike knew he could have made himself an honorary member of that clique if he was willing to start smoking, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Supposedly just living in L.A. was like smoking two packs a day, though everyone had a reason why their part of the city was OK – they lived in the hills above the smog, or out by the ocean where the sea air was cleaner.
Elaine was reading email on her laptop.
“You have to take a look at this script,” Mike said.
She glanced up at him and then down at the WME cover with the letter clipped to it. She skimmed the note with a small sour frown.
“This is why you missed the meeting?”
“It’s the first script Joe Toll has ever liked. And it’s good. I couldn’t stop reading it. There’re sequels forever. I can’t believe we’re the only people seeing it.”
“There’s no star or director attached, Michael. They don’t even have a producer. Think for a moment. In this great script-hungry town full of deluded dreamers with a few thousand dollars in their pockets, they couldn’t find one single person to even option this piece. What does that tell you?”
Mike took a breath. “It tells me that this writer needs a new agent. You don’t submit something this good cold to a studio and leave it at the mercy of — ”
Her eyes flicked up to him from the computer screen.
“ – us,” he finished lamely. “You know what I’m saying. You take your time. You get people involved. You make it an attractive package before you take it to market. That’s what WME is supposed to be good at. This doesn’t make sense. They’re dumping this script for some reason. But it’s a fantastic opportunity for us. We can pick it up cheap, cast all unknowns and make a fortune.”
Elaine winced at him. She didn’t like unknowns. Elaine gave him a slow knowing smile as she closed her laptop.
“Do you by any chance happen to know this writer?”
“I’ve never met her.”
“She’s not a girlfriend of yours?”
“Aren’t you all.”
“Listen to me. I couldn’t even pick this woman out of a police lineup.”
Elaine was staring at him. “Michael, is this a pen-name of yours?”
“It happens all the time.”
“Jesus Christ! Is it really that implausible that I should come across a good script? Probably a thousand scripts a week come into this studio. They can’t all be bad. Come on. Just give it a read. You’ll thank me. And you can have all the credit for discovering it.”
“Now, Michael. You know I would never do that. All right. I’ll take a look at it.”
Mike knew he had gotten all he was going to get. “Thanks, Elaine. This kind of thing makes the job worthwhile.”
Elaine’s phone buzzed. She picked it up and waved him out of the door. He realized he might have said too much after all. His last comment implied that in the ordinary course of events, his job was worthless.
5 comments on “The Story Department
Nice work ,Steve. Looking forward to reading more and , of course, to the book.
So right on. A story analyst I knew said his boss was like the debris basins in the Santa Monica Mountains — his job was to catch rubble. !!!
This excerpt was so entertaining and funny. Loved it!
Don’t tell Joe, but all those things that would happen if they didn’t make that script? They’ve happened – at least in the movie biz. We gotta wait for tomorrow to read part deux? Type faster, Steven.
Can’t wait til tomorrow!! Give me the BOOK! Axelrod paints a picture that I can not only see, but smell and taste and hear. This appetizer leaves me hungry for the main course.