Word Stew

by Barry Strugatz

More conflict as a struggling screenwriter and a famed director are now locked in a test of wills. 3,587 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.

It was a gorgeous crystal-clear morning in Bel Air. The sky was blue, birds sang, the pool sparkled. Inside the pool house of legendary septuagenarian director Roger Edmund’s hilltop mansion, screenwriter Paul Slater, on a cot asleep, spasmed in the grip of a nightmare. There was a knock at the door. Paul woke with a start, looked around and remembered where he was. On the doorstep stood Maria the maid carrying a breakfast tray. She entered and put it down on the table beside Paul’s laptop. Paul noticed a note on the tray. He picked it up and read: I EXPECT PAGES. WE’LL MEET LATER. ROGER

Paul was agitated.  Pages? What pages? We’ve only been working together for 48 hours and don’t even have a basic story yet. He asked Maria, "Where’s Roger?”

Señor Roger?” Maria pointed toward the driveway. Paul ran out. At that moment, Ernesto, the houseman, was helping Roger and his wife Karen, the Undersecretary of Commerce, into a limo. Roger’s hand was bandaged and Karen had a Band-Aid over her eye after their contretemps the night before. Ernesto closed the door and the limo drove off as Paul appeared.

“Roger! Roger, wait!” Too late. The limo disappeared through the gate. Paul turned to Ernesto. “Where did he go?”

“To the airport. To see his wife off. He’ll be back in a few hours.”

“Look, Ernesto, I need to go get some reference books–” Paul suddenly noticed something was missing. “Hey, where’s my rental car?”

“Roger had me return it. He said it was a needless expense.”

“How am I supposed to get around?” Paul protested.

“You can use one of Roger’s cars,” Ernesto offered. An hour later Paul sat in the driver’s seat of a canary yellow Lamborghini. It was around noon when Paul parked across the street on Sawtelle near Pico outside the no-frills but serious used book store, WORD STEW. Paul passed through the narrow aisles, investigating different sections. He purchased Infant CPR, Firefighter’s Training Guide, Confessions Of A Crackhead, On Death And Dyingby eminent psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler Ross. It was around three in the afternoon when Paul pulled the Lamborghini back into Roger’s garage. The screenwriter gathered his books and walked toward the pool when Ernesto appeared.

“Roger would like to see you. Right away,” Ernesto said. Paul followed him into the house. Roger was in the study.

“Where the hell have you been?!” Roger fumed.

“I just went out to get some books for research and reference.”  Paul showed him the books.

“Use the goddamn internet! Writers use ‘research’ as an excuse not to write. We don’t have a helluva lot of time to finish this script. So stop wasting it!”

“I’m sorry, Roger. I was just—“

“From now on, you don’t leave the property unless you ask me first.”

“Is that really necessary?” Paul asked, incredulous.

“Yes, it is.”

Roger’s cell phone rang. He fished it out of a pocket. “Hello? Hello, Lars! Where are you? Oloibiri, Nigeria? Didn’t realize you had an oilfield out there. Sure, I remember what we discussed yesterday. Actually, I’m hard at work on the screenplay right now with our brilliant young writer…” Roger winked at Paul who nodded modestly. “We should have something very soon.”

A concerned look crossed Roger’s face. “A week? That’s kind of tight. I understand but… Okay, you’ll have it, no problem… Bye.”

Roger turned off his phone and looked at Paul. “Something about a tax write-off law expiring. We have to deliver a screenplay in a week.” Before Paul could protest, Roger said, “When I worked for Corman, we had to put scripts together in a day and a half. How many pages have you written?”



“Just some notes based on our conversations yesterday.”

“I need you to start producing pages. Screenplay pages. So stop fooling around, plant your ass in a chair and fucking write! I want a stack of pages to read first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Sure, Roger,” Paul acquiesced.

In the pool house, Paul organized his work on a folding table: laptop, printer, books, notes. Ernesto supplied two reams of paper and set up a Keurig coffee machine, Maria brought sandwiches. Paul consulted his books, jotted down notes, pondered, wrote more notes, then finally started typing screenplay pages. Without stopping his progress, he drank cup after cup of coffee. He ate turkey and tuna sandwiches and then half a dozen chocolate chip cookies. The pages began to pile up.

Suddenly, his wife was Skyping him. “Hi, Paul. How’s it going?”

“I’m on a really tight deadline. I have to write a 100-page script in a week.”

“And you’re not even getting paid?!”

“It’s ‘on spec.’ That’s the way they do business out here.”

“Visa just called. They’ve cancelled the credit card.”

“Crap! Look, this work could lead to some real money.”

“I hope so. Can you write a whole screenplay in just a week?

“I don’t know — but I’m sure gonna try.”

“Paul, I googled Roger Edmunds. Two extras got killed by an explosion on one of his movie sets. Including a child. He barely avoided a manslaughter conviction.”

“I know. But he seems alright — if you ignore his massive ego.”

Just then, their 4-year-old son Nick, clutching his favorite book, came into view. “Hi Daddy! When are you coming home?”

“Soon. I have to finish some work first.”

“Daddy, read to me.”

“Sure, Nick. Just open the book and hold it up to the computer… A little lower… That’s it. Hold it there. ‘In the great green room was a telephone and a red balloon…’”

At that moment, an elegantly dressed group was at Roger’s front door — three women and two men.  Roger greeted them wearing a stylish 3-piece suit and tie. “Welcome, lords and ladies!” Then he theatrically bowed and ushered them inside.

In the den on a custom-crafted green felt table were an antique chip dispenser and a stack of unopened card decks. On the side board sat quesadillas, guacamole, a caviar station, fresh fruits, chocolates, wines and champagnes in buckets of ice, and a tray of joints. Roger and his guests took seats around the table overlooking the artfully lit pool visible through a sliding glass door.

“I’m feeling extra lucky tonight,” Roger declared as he opened a deck and started shuffling.

Hours later, Paul in the pool house was still typing away when he stood up to stretch and noticed a half empty bottle of cognac in a corner.  He poured some into a paper cup, took a sip and stepped outside.  He heard music coming from the main house.  Curious, he went to investigate. In the den, a strip poker game was underway. The players were in various stages of undress. Behind a large pile of chips sat Roger, smoking a cigar and wearing a necktie but no shirt. He broke into a wide grin as he laid down a royal flush for all to see.

“Read ‘em and weep, Suzy. Or read ‘em and strip!! All eyes were on Suzy as she folded three aces. “Okay, honey, don’t be a sore loser!” Roger chortled.  “Manny, turn up the music!” Manny put down his joint and turned up the volume. The Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” blasted from the speakers. Suzy stood in just a bra and panties. She stepped onto a chair, then onto the table and started dancing.  Roger and the others laughed and clapped in appreciation. Suzy danced as she stripped off her bra and threw it at Roger. The cups landed over his eyes like goggles. Suzy grabbed Roger’s tie and pulled him onto the card table. Now wearing just briefs and socks, he did a wild dance with her. She grabbed one of Roger’s Oscars from a shelf and started pantomiming sexual acts with it.

Outside, Paul sat in a deck chair watching. He was mesmerized.  Someone slid open the glass door and naked guests tumbled out of the house and dove into the pool.  Finally, Roger was nude and did a cannonball, making a huge splash. From behind some bushes, Paul ogled them for a moment then retreated into the pool house.  He shut the windows, muffling the music and the squeals. Paul went to his laptop and continued typing.

The next morning, as soon as Paul woke up, he turned on his computer and started printing pages. The screenwriter stepped outside and did a few yoga stretches. He walked over to the edge that separated the property from the dry grassy hill and climbed over a thigh-high brick wall. On the hillside , 20 yards from the house, Paul clambered onto a rock outcropping and enjoyed the view.

Suddenly he heard a noise. He looked down to see a huge rattlesnake within striking distance. He quickly turned to see another large rattlesnake. Terrified, Paul froze as the snakes slithered closer. Just then, two gunshots rang out, killing both snakes. Paul looked up. On the far-off balcony stood Roger, buck naked, holding a rifle with a telescopic sight.

Paul climbed back over the wall.  An annoyed Roger, now in a bathrobe with the rifle slung over his shoulder, was there. "What the hell are you doing outside my property?!”

“I just went for a walk to get some exercise.”

“You want exercise? Go for a swim. Or use my gym. This whole city is built on an arid topography inhospitable to humans. Until the Conquistadors arrived, there were just a few Indians living on a tiny river which no longer even exists. From now on, don’t leave the grounds.” Pause. "I hope you have some pages to show me.”

Minutes later, Roger was lying stomach down on a massage table, a towel draped over his backside,  as a muscle-bound masseuse worked his shoulders. Paul handed Roger the pages. “That’s all?” Roger complained. The director grabbed a pair of glasses from a nearby table and started to read. Paul watched anxiously as Roger pored over each page, then dropped it unceremoniously to the floor.

“Not good. I’m gonna have to teach you how to write,” Roger declared.

On his Astroturf-covered rooftop driving range, Roger whacked golf balls into the chaparral-filled canyon below. “It’s not rocket science, kid. Every story has three acts. A beginning, a middle and an end. First act: get your hero up a tree. Second act: shake a stick at him.” Roger shook his Big Bertha club. “Third act: get him down the tree. Got it?”

“I think so,” Paul answered. “Create a conflict. Increase the tension. Then resolve it.”

“Now go do it. Pronto!” Roger ordered as he looked over the roof’s edge to see the four gardeners working below. “Muchachos, traigan mis bolas!” he yelled at them. The gardeners climbed down into the ravine and began collecting his golf balls.

“But, Roger, what about the rattlesnakes?

“Oh, they won’t get bitten. They’re Latinos. Blood’s too spicy. All that salsa." Roger resumed whacking balls. Fore!”

That evening Paul was writing feverishly on his computer when a Skype call came in from his wife.  He didn’t answer. He quit Skype and continued typing.

Later that night, Paul carried a small stack of pages to Roger’s front door, which was open a crack. Paul knocked. No response. So he cautiously entered. In the foyer, the lights were dim and all was quiet. “Roger?… Hello?” Paul called. Nothing. Then Paul made out faint murmuring from upstairs. “Ernesto?” The murmuring grew sing-song. Chant-like. Paul warily started up the steps. “Roger?…” The upstairs hallway was dark. At the end was a closed door. Undulating light leaked through the bottom. The otherworldly chanting stopped.

Paul stepped toward the door. “It’s Paul. I have some…” He raised his fist, about to knock. The door flew open. There was Roger in an elegant Nehru suit.

“Paul! Good. Come right in.” Paul entered a sitting room lit by flickering candles. At a table sat an old bearded Indian man in a turban.  He smiled beatifically. "Meet Swami Kadam,” Roger introduced. “Swami was just giving me a reading before my operation tomorrow.”

“You’re having surgery tomorrow?” Paul said, stunned.

“Just outpatient. Doctor says I can go back to work the next day.”

“Roger, you have absolutely nothing to worry about," the Swami reassured. "Your stars are well aligned.”

“Wonderful! Since I have you here, maybe you could give us a reading on the project I’m working on with Paul.”

“Surely. Please sit, gentlemen.” Roger and Paul sat at the table. Swami saw the pages Paul was holding. Swami put them in the center of the table. “Let’s join hands.” They did as instructed, and Swami closed his eyes. Paul looked to Roger whose eyes were closed, too. Paul shrugged and closed his eyes. "Ommmm.” Swami intoned. They opened their eyes.

“Well?” Roger asked.

“I see nothing but critical acclaim and popular adulation,” Swami reassured.

“Beautiful!” Roger exclaimed.

Paul smiled, relieved.

On the front step, Roger shook Swami’s hand as Paul watched. "Swami, a thousand thank yous.”

“My pleasure, dear friend. Speedy recovery. Namaste!”

Roger went inside as Paul walked Swami to the driveway. Swami suddenly grabbed Paul’s sleeve, a grave look on his face. “I must warn you. You’re in danger!”

“What? How?” Paul stammered.

“I only know you will be met with harm.”

“But you said good things about the project.”

“About Roger and the project, not you.”

As Swami got into a convertible Mercedes coupe, Paul called out. “What can I do? Should I leave?”

“I don’t know. Either way you may be fucked.”

Paul, shaken, watched as Swami drove off.

In the morning, Roger’s young assistant Claire escorted him to a waiting Town Car in the driveway. Paul dashed over. "Did you read the pages?" he asked.

“I like the pages, kid. Keep going," Roger said. "Finish act two. I’ll be back tonight. And if I feel up to it, then we’ll talk tomorrow. It’s in your hands, Paul. Time is of the essence. Write fast!”

“I will, Roger. And I’m sure your procedure’s going to go great.” Roger winked as he got into the car. Claire walked to her Mini Cooper as Paul followed. “Is it serious? My agent mentioned his heart.” asked Paul.

“He’ll be fine. Just so you know, I’ve never seen Roger so intent on a project.  He truly believes this will get made."

That afternoon, Paul wrote feverishly on his laptop until there was a knock on the door.  Ernesto let himself in. He was carrying more K-cups for a strong French roast. “I just got word that Roger is in recovery. Everything went perfectly,” Ernesto reported.

Ernesto took out a plastic medicine vial. “Roger thought you could also use some of these.”

Paul read the label. “Dexedrine? These are amphetamines. Speed.”

“They’ll help you stay up and write.”

“How many do you think I should take?”

“I’d start with two,” Ernesto said while discreetly checking the page count on Paul’s screen. “Oh, and Roger said you can slip your pages through the mail slot.”

“Will do.”

Ernesto left and Paul regarded the pill vial in his hand. After some minutes, he put them in a drawer, sat back down at the laptop and resumed writing.

At dawn, Paul slid the script through the mail slot in Roger’s front door.  In the pool house, Paul collapsed onto the cot and fell into a deep sleep. Around noon there was an impatient knock. A groggy Paul opened the door. There stood Ernesto. “Roger would like to see you.”

When Paul entered the master bedroom he saw Roger sitting up in bed, wearing large dark sunglasses, channel surfing on a huge Samsung.

“Hey Roger, how’re you feeling?”

“Like shit.”

“Your chest hurt?”

“Why should it?”

“From heart surgery.”

“They just removed my cataracts.”

Paul thought it odd that Roger was able to watch TV.

“Look! I was supposed to direct this.” The movie Misery was playing.  Kathy Bates, sledgehammer in hand, approaches James Caan who is strapped to a bed. Caan is begging her not to hit him. Bates smashes his ankle. Caan screams in agony.

“I didn’t get the gig, but Rob Reiner did a pretty good job,” Roger laughed. He turned off the TV. “Now about your pages…” Paul held his breath. “They suck. Where’s the jeopardy? What are the stakes? I told you, ‘Get ‘em up a tree and shake a stick at ‘em.’ Where’s the fucking stick?! Now the fireman has to hit bottom right before he saves the baby. He’s getting ready to end it all.”

“You mean suicide?”

“Of course, suicide! He should be at the end of his rope. That’s it – a rope! He’s about to hang himself!”

“That doesn’t seem melodramatic?”

“Dramatic, melodramatic, who cares? I want emotion, feeling, passion! The whole thing is amped up if you have the guy about to off himself. Then the woman approaches him with her limp baby who’s not breathing. Let’s read page 65. Sit next to me. I’ll be the fireman.”

Paul sat on the edge of the bed and ran lines with Roger. “Paul, can you at least put some feeling into it? This women is hysterical for Christ’s sake.” Paul adopted an urgent female tone. “Better. Continue,” Roger ordered.

Just then Paul’s phone rang. He looked at the caller ID and answered as Roger glared. “Hi, hon… I’m very busy right now. I’m with Roger–" Livid, Roger grabbed Paul’s phone and hurled it against the wall, smashing it to pieces. "We’re on deadline and, when you work for me, you focus on the job at hand — not extraneous bullshit! Now get back to work! Fix what you’ve got and finish the goddamn script. Until you get it done — don’t take a phone call, don’t take a break, don’t even take a shit! You hear me?"

Roger was screaming. Paul quickly left the room. He stormed past the gardening crew and went into the pool house, slamming the door behind him.  He started throwing and breaking things — furniture, dishes, film reels, yelling, “Fuck you, Roger! You arrogant shithead prick!” Paul turned to his computer and was about to smash it but stopped himself.

A minute later Paul ran out of the pool house and dove into the pool.  He started swimming laps, trying to burn off his rage. On the balcony Roger watched hawk-like, fuming from behind his sunglasses. After swimming for an hour, Paul lingered in the pool house shower. As the steaming  water poured over him, Paul heard the sounds of banging. Louder and louder. When he left the bathroom he saw the pool house’s two windows were now covered with sheets of plywood. He tried to open the door but it was shut with criss-crossed two-by-fours. There were six-inch openings in the lattice but Paul was now sealed into the pool house.

Just then, Roger appeared. “What the hell is going on?!  Am I a prisoner?” Paul demanded to know.

“For your own good.  So you’ll be able to write without any interruptions. I’ve left holes big enough for pages out, food in. Get it? Emphasis on the pages out.”

“Roger, you’re fucking crazy!”

Roger turned to leave, then remembered something. “Oh yeah, I also cut off the internet.”

Paul paced back and forth, then eventually got dressed. He put his fingers on the laptop keyboard and slowly began to write. That evening, still at work, Paul heard footsteps approach. It was Roger.

“You hungry?” Roger asked.

“I haven’t eaten since last night.”

“You have some pages for me?”

“Here,” Paul grumbled, handing them through the slim opening.

“Good.  And here’s your dinner.” Roger pushed a food container through the hole. “I got you sushi. From Kiyokawa. Their uni is amazing. I’ll see you for your breakfast pages.”

Roger walked off as Paul hungrily ate.

Paul continued typing late into the night until he fell asleep at the keyboard. It was early morning when he was awoken by a sliding sound. Paul saw a bowl of corn flakes on the floor by the door. Roger stood outside, glowering. “That’s what you get for turning in shitty sub-standard work.”

“Roger, you can’t treat me like this.”

“Sure I can. The Geneva Convention states: ‘Basic daily food rations shall be sufficient in quantity, quality and variety to keep prisoners of war in good health and to prevent loss of weight or the development of nutritional deficiencies.’"

“I’m not a fucking P.O.W.”

“We had an agreement. You promised to deliver a wonderful shootable screenplay.”

“Let me out of here!”

“Write yourself out.”

“I’m going on strike. A hunger strike!” Paul kicked over the bowl of corn flakes.

“Suit yourself.” Roger shrugged and walked off.

Paul stood there seething for a long while. Then he remembered that he was broke and in debt. His wife and child were depending on him. And writing this script at least offered Paul a chance of making some money and getting his career on track. Finally, Paul opened the drawer where he had stashed the vial of amphetamine, and took two pills.

He plugged in headphones and blasted Glenn Gould playing Bach and Beethoven. And he started writing at his computer again. Paul went into a trance-like state. His hands flew across the keyboard as the story flowed out of him. Hours passed, the sun moved across the sky, and he kept typing. Paul didn’t notice the keyboard letters turning red as his fingertips bled. He had never written so well or so quickly in his life.

About The Author:
Barry Strugatz
Barry Strugatz is a screenwriter whose film credits include Married To The Mob, She-Devil and From Other Worlds. He recently made the documentary The Professor – Tai Chi’s Journey West. He wrote the comedy, Furlough which will be released by IFC in 2018 and stars Melissa Leo, Tessa Thompson, Whoopi Goldberg and Anna Paquin.

About Barry Strugatz

Barry Strugatz is a screenwriter whose film credits include Married To The Mob, She-Devil and From Other Worlds. He recently made the documentary The Professor – Tai Chi’s Journey West. He wrote the comedy, Furlough which will be released by IFC in 2018 and stars Melissa Leo, Tessa Thompson, Whoopi Goldberg and Anna Paquin.

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