The executive story editor pitches the script to the studio boss – with consequences. 3,103 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
So here Mike was, past thirty and working in a studio story department, parking at the other end of the lot. The real question was, how did you progress from here? When the people above made enough flops or embarrassed the studio enough they were fired gently and given their own production deals. Few movies ever came out of those kiss-off vanity office suites (more time was spent on cool logos and interior decoration), but it might be possible to wring some authentic opportunity from such a sinecure. Of course, first you’d have to get promoted within the studio system to fail comprehensively. Well, Mike was good at that. He had credentials: he.was a one-man Bermuda Triangle. Let the ordinary losers try and compete with that!
Getting promoted was another issue. Mike knew the way to do it was to socialize with people he didn’t like. It was a daunting prospect, not least of all because there was no clear way to define your progress. In law school you measured your steps toward the bar exam class by class, and year by year. The path was worn down by many feet. There was nothing comparable in this world. Mike had no idea how many nights of poker he’d have to sit through, how many cigarettes he’d have to smoke, how many parties he’d have to endure, before he was eligible to get the job he wanted to lose.
In fact, he didn’t even know how to begin. He and Emma hardly went out at all. He remembered high school and desperately trying to figure out how to get into the cool group when nothing else had seemed to matter. He’d crashed parties, staged elaborate ones of his own. He even went out for the football team. But nothing worked. A geek was a geek; the social structure was absolute. It had been a grotesque ordeal and he had no desire to initiate some new version of it now.
He put the problem aside until a few hours later, when his old friend Roscoe Henderson called with the first hint of a solution.
“We’re playing doubles this Saturday, and Dave Amaro broke his wrist. So you just got promoted. You’re on the A-list, buddy.”
Mike put down the script he was reading. Someone named Bubba was saying, “I’m a park ranger, damn it.” He had a pretty good idea what the drippy girlfriend was going to say next. It could wait.
“I haven’t played tennis for years,” Mike said, leaning back in his chair. “I don’t even have a racket any more.”
“You told me you were good when you were kicking my ass at ping pong. Remember?”
“I was exaggerating.”
“You said you were a nationally ranked collegiate tennis player.”
“You weren’t listening. I said I got my ass kicked by a nationally ranked collegiate tennis player. His first serve knocked the racket out of my hand. That’s when I knew I was in trouble.”
“But you can play. And I have a spare racket. Listen, Travis Conklin will be playing with us and maybe you can do yourself some good. Saturday, ten thirty. Look sharp. Get some tennis whites and some new sneakers. There’s a dress code at this club.”
Mike knew exactly what club Roscoe was talking about. He wanted to be part of it so much, he felt a brief loop of self disgust run through him, like a wave in a snapped rope. When it was lying flat again he took a breath, pulled his chair up to the desk and went back to the script.
The drippy girlfriend was saying, “If you leave now, I won’t be here when you get back.”
Elaine Littleton was sitting at her desk the next morning when Mike walked in. She was paging through Variety, and scrolling through Deadline And THR at the same time when she glanced up and saw him.
“I don’t know why I read all this nonsenser,” she said brightly. “It’s all lies. I know it and so does everyone else. Listen to this: ‘They have seven pictures in ‘various stages of development.’ What stages might those be? Supposedly some European consortium of banks is financing everything. Until the first movie flops, anyway. They’ve probably burned through all that money and now they’re looking for a distribution deal, trying to bluff everyone by planting some ridiculous story in the trades. And the most insane part is that it might actually work. As long as the phone number hasn’t been disconnected yet. We all give them lies to print or post every day and yet we still believe every word we read. And I have no idea why.”
“Maybe because we want it to be true,” Mike offered, easing himself into the office. “Maybe because it sounds real, and that’s good enough for us.”
“Well, Michael. That’s a little too much cynicism for me at nine-forty five in the morning. Besides, some of it must be true. Movies get made, and they’re all announced right here.” She spun her computer and tapped the screen. The blithe and effortless way she contradicted herself always amazed him.
But he saw his opening and dove in. “Talking about making movies, did you get a chance to look at that script?”
She checked a text on her phone. “It was charming. Very funny. But it’s not a feature.”
He took a breath. “I hear that all the time, but I have no idea what it means.”
She kept her elbows on the table but collapsed her wrists so her iPhone pressed against her chest. “All right. It belongs on cable. It’s too small. It’s too soft. It doesn’t have the heft of a feature.”
“What if I told you I had a script about a guy who has to take care of his nephew when his brother dies. Sound like a feature?”
She sniffed. “Hardly. It sounds like a downer.”
“And yet, it’s nominated for an Oscar.”
She exhaled a long tiered breath. “This script you love has no central character, Michael. Did you notice that?”
“It’s an ensemble.”
He wasn’t exactly losing his temper; it was just loosening, like a badly tied knot. “A woman wrote this script. Doesn’t that make a difference?”
“I’m giving it a pass. But I took a courtesy meeting with her a few months ago, if that makes you feel any better.”
“A few months ago?”
“The script’s been kicking around here forever, Michael. I just thought it was time to get some official coverage on it. Housecleaning.”
“I don’t get it. You hate the script. Why meet with her?”
“I like to keep my options open. You never know. She could wind up being a hot screenwriter some day. And if she does, I’ll have dibs on her.”
“Dibs? You’re calling dibs? You can’t really do that, anymore. Not after you graduate from kindergarten.”
Elaine smiled. “You wait and see. Someday, if everyone’s bidding on one of her scripts, she’ll remember she has a friend here.”
“But she doesn’t.”
“Well, Michael, that will have to be our little secret. Now run along. We both have work to do this morning.”
She opened up another text. He was dismissed.
Mike arrived late on Saturday morning, later than the half hour he had planned as insurance against arriving first and looking like an over-eager flunky or the new pool boy. He pulled up behind a big Mercedes, a Volvo station wagon, a BMW and Roscoe’s midnight blue Triumph TR-6 convertible. Mike climbed out of the car and walked under the port-cochere; he could hear the soft resonant pop of tennis balls being hit from the clay courts beyond. Everyone was playing already. He was much too late; they had started without him. He cursed quietly and walked a little faster.
“Anyway,” Mike’s big boss, Travis Conklin, was saying to Roscoe, “none of these assholes know how to write. They all took the same bullshit screenwriting class and they just pump out the same bullshit screenplays. It’s like watching bumpers come off the assembly line.” He reached over and clapped Mike on the shoulder. “That’s why I have you, buddy. So I can tell anyone who asks I saw every bumper and they were all the same.”
Mike knew it was best to appear cautious and greedy and shrewd. “There are some good writers out there,” he said. “But original stuff makes people nervous. And they’re ignorant. Elaine Littleton thought “Blue Is The Warmest Color” was about interior decorators.”
Todd Richter, head of WME’s literary department, let out a short braying laugh. “That’s who I have to deal with every day.”
“Hey,” said Conklin. “She’s my good right hand.”
The agent made a jerk-off gesture. “I bet she is.”
“I read a great script the other day,” Mike ventured. It was like climbing a high tree; every branch he scaled made him queasier. “Elaine hated it.”
Roscoe was looking at him hard, squinting an inscrutable warning. But it was too late to play guess-my-expression. The momentum was too strong. Mike remembered reading somewhere that the Titanic was in full reverse when they hit the iceberg. That image would come back to haunt him later.
“My client wrote that script,” Todd said.
“That’s right. Where did you find her? She’s fantastic.”
“Should I know about this writer?” Conklin looked interested for the first time.
“Down boy,” Todd said. “She’s a new scripter, just starting to get the feel of it. She has talent, don’t get me wrong. But she has a long way to go.”
Mike stood up to grab a drink. “Funny you should say that. Because I think it’s absolutely the opposite. She doesn’t have any way to go at all. She’s right there, right now. Her stuff is hilarious. I laughed out loud reading this screenplay. I never do that. I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud reading anything. And it would be great for this writer if her own agent liked the script as much as some stranger in a studio story department.”
Conklin was amused – conflict always amused him. “Let’s play some tennis,” he said, finally. And so they did, and after the first set of doubles, the pressure created by Mike’s tirade seemed to sweat itself out. But that was what Mike had always liked best about playing tennis: it left no room for anything else. No interior monologue could stand up to a good rally.
The pairs were evenly matched and the game was casual, except when the agent was serving to Mike. He was evidently still annoyed; one of his serves actually hit Mike in the shoulder and the exec had to duck to avoid another one.
“We’re not shooting skeet here,” Conklin said genially after the near miss. “No extra points for kills.”
“How about crippling him?”
Conklin grinned. “I’ll think about it.”
After a few more sets, Conklin and Roscoe Henderson quit. The sun was hot, they were winded and they had business to discuss. Mike walked back to his car for a clean shirt. He also grabbed the screenplay to give to Conklin.
“The script we were talking about? I think you should read it. It’s the best thing I’ve seen since I started working for you. I brought it with me. That’s really why I came here today,” he finished awkwardly. He was talking too much.
Conklin laughed. “You’ve got balls. I’ll give you that.”
“Just read it. You’ll be glad you did.”
They walked to the pool. “Have some lunch,” Conklin said.
“Thanks, but — I should go. I have a lot of scripts to get through this weekend.”
“Ride you hard, do they?”
“That’s how I like it. Maybe another time.”
Conklin had the script. That was what mattered.
The first indication that something was wrong came from Mike’s secretary. It wasn’t the look on Lucy’s face; she was turned away, talking softly on the phone when Mike walked into the office. It was her posture. There was something wounded in the way she was hunched away from her desk. She hung up when Mike said “Hello”, and turned her chair around to face him. Her upbeat peppy grin was hideously false. Her mouth stayed half-open, the corners curled upward after she spoke, which only intensified Mike’s first impression.
“What’s going on, Lucy?”
“Ms. Littleton wants to see you in her office as soon as you get in.”
“What happened? Did she say anything?”
“She just wants to see you, Mr. Garth. I think you should get in there right away.”
The smile was officially gone now.
Mike could feel a chilly sense of dread closing over him. On the way down the corridor, Mike passed moving guys taking the big sectional couch out of Travis Conklin’s office. What was going on? Was Travis moving downstairs? Was he quitting? Had he been fired? Was everyone being fired? Is this why Elaine wanted to see him? He should have looked at the parking spaces; were any of the names whited out? He hadn’t noticed any painters, those heralds of doom.
He tried to imagine why they would fire Elaine Littleton. Had she finally passed on one too many good projects, alienated one too many subsequently successful writers? It would be wonderful if people like Elaine had to answer for such lapses in judgment. But Mike knew that was a fantasy. Most likely she had been promoted to Conklin’s position. Did that mean Mike was being promoted also?
Not according to the look on Lucy’s face, and the secretaries always knew everything first.
Speculation was useless. Mike arrived at Elaine’s door and pushed inside.
“It’s customary to knock,” Elaine said. Her voice was brittle with controlled anger. She was standing by the bookshelf looking over the scripts, each with its scrawled title in magic marker across the thick spine of bound pages.
“Sit down,” she said, and when he had eased himself into the big chair that faced her desk she walked over and dropped the screenplay in its WME cover onto his lap. “You should enjoy that, since you’re such a fan. I’m getting rid of all these.”
“Oh,” he said. “I always wondered when we’d send them back.”
Elaine laughed. It was curt and humorless, as if she was just clearing her throat.
“Send them back? We never send scripts back. These are going to the dumpster.” She thrust her chin at the screenplay she’d handed him. “Go on. Look at it.”
He opened the cover. It was a new scripts by the writer he’d admired.
“Don’t waste your time pushing it, Michael. I’ve already passed on it, and Travis Conklin doesn’t work here any more. As you may have noticed. Travis took a job at Paramount. I’ve been promoted and you’ve been fired.”
Mike sat back. “Oh.”
“Shall I tell you why?”
“You don’t like me?”
“No, I don’t. But that has nothing to do with it. This is anything but personal. If it were personal, I never would have hired you in the first place, no matter what Roscoe Henderson said. The fact is that we disagree on material. And someone who disagrees with me on material is a liability on my staff. I need you to have my opinions so I don’t have to formulate them myself. I’m too busy protecting the scripts I care about. Grooming them. Shepherding them into production.”
She licked the edges of a silence, sealing it. Mike waited. He wasn’t going to open it. Finally she glanced at her watch and walked over to the window.
“I will share with you the precipitating incident. Travis Conklin came to me last week and told me he had read the script you had given him socially.”
“Did he like it? He never got back to me.”
“He didn’t think it was appropriate for this studio. Or any studio. And he paid me quite a compliment. He was impressed that I had so decisively rejected what he referred to as a ‘chick flick.’ He said, ‘Elaine, you think like a man.’ He told me that the department was going to be in very good hands during my stewardship. But when you push your ignorant opinions on your superiors, you jeopardize everyone’s job because you jeopardize the system itself. You’re subversive and you’re dangerous and I plan to tell that to anyone who asks me.”
“So I can be rude?”
“If you feel the need.”
“Great. Because I was just thinking how lucky you are to have found a job where being a functional illiterate with no taste is actually an asset. Congratulations. You have one liability though, Elaine. You talk about yourself too much. Which means that everyone in the office knows everything about you. So, in parting, I’d just like to say – forget the nose job. It won’t help.”
She looked at him neutrally. “Please collect your things and be off the lot by noon, Michael. Security will accompany you.”
That night, after Emma was asleep, Mike eased himself out of bed, slipped into the living room, turned on the good floor light beside the one really comfortable chair and started reading The writer’s latest screenplay. Looking for good material was his real job, whether he was officially employed or not. Who knew? He might even option the script himself.
It wasn’t what he’d expected. People who do comedy rarely show much flair for drama. This script wasn’t just drama; it was melodrama – period piece romantic melodrama, at that. But Mike couldn’t put it down. He read it until three in the morning, with the ice melting into his scotch and the scotch forgotten.
An hour later, he set the script aside with a tired sigh. The ending sucked. These characters deserved better. There had to be another way to go. He couldn’t imagine what that might be because he wasn’t a writer. But she was, and much too good a writer to allow herself the cheap bathos of this predictable finale.
Mike jumped up, darted into the kitchen and grabbed the phone. She was listed in Playa Del Rey. He almost called. But he had a moment of sanity looking at the kitchen clock. It was two thirty in the morning. No one wanted to hear script notes at that hour. More importantly, no sane movie executive called with notes at two thirty in the morning, even half-drunk unemployed ones. For now he had to calm himself down and get to sleep. He had a busy day of job hunting ahead of him.
4 comments on “The Story Department
My response to this tart new work by Steven Axelrod– just like the classic song goes, It cuts like a knife/ But feels so right
Just gets better! NEXT chapter? p
"I’m a park ranger, damn it." So funny, charming and briskly paced. Just the right touch. Couldn’t wait to read Part Two, now want more…
Keep this one going, I am now officially sucked in. But don’t let it get in the way of Hank Kennis.