[note-- as with most of my travelogues, the post-event wrap-up tends to run longer than would a real-time video record of the events described. If this is a problem for you, there are likely many other blogs more to your liking, and I urge you to go find one.]
I wakened to another damned perfect day, San Diego my intended destination.
There’s an aerospace museum there which is a fair second place to the National Air & Space Museum at the Smithsonian in terms of its orgasmic wonder to airplane nuts (and, for those eager beavers scoring along at home, I am a airplane nut). I’d been wanting to see this museum since summer of ’05, when they hosted a rare reunion of the surviving members of a certain Russian flying corps of WW2. I’ve got a screenplay about this topic circulating around LA, a ridiculously cinematic story about one of these amazing aviators whose story has never been told. The SD museum has a standing exhibit on these Soviet combat flyers in combat, and it seemed worth a look, as did the museum’s expansive collection of vintage aircraft.
I never got there.
When I wake, I started working the phones to touch base with a page long list of LA based names and personalities I’ve been meaning to see when possible. One of these—a woman whom I’ve known through online writing efforts for 5 or 6 years now, but nothing relating to screenwriting—wanted to meet for coffee, so we met.
(And what IS it about “coffee” in LA? I’m stunned by the amount of coffee which gets drunk in this town. I had one producer laughingly but seriously tell me “cocaine is so early 90s. Now everyone is hopped up on Red Bull and Starbucks. The same stupid mistakes get made as before, but we make them a lot faster now, which increases productivity.”)
So I agreed to meet an old acquaintance for morning coffee, thinking it might take an hour, and then I’d be on my way to San Diego. Instead, it took two hours just to actually get to that part of this meeting where we were actually drinking coffee. We met at that sort of LA place which seems to exist on every corner and at least twice more in mid—block between the corners: an old brick place with at least a dozen umbrella shaded tables. We sat around and drank our 4 dollar coffees and wore our sunglasses and effected just the right level of “je ne sais don't give a fuck,” that peculiarly LA ‘tude where you make it as clear as possible that you are at once both indispensably important yet utterly unconcerned with it all.
Gorgeous women wander past with numbing frequency. Guys who look like they are looking for an Abercrombie ad to fall into mill about like pigeons. BMWs and Mercedes and Bugatti coupes whisper past. And at some point I look up and realize that it’s creeping up on late morning, and that a trip to San Diego now will mean sitting on the 405 parking lot for something like 3 hours, leaving me only a few scant hours to see a museum which I know will require many more hours than I now have.
So I wave of the much anticipated SD side trip, and start working the cell, baybee.
A few calls latter I have some things to do, people to see—meetings.
I’m sailing east on the 134, and I start to notice that there are a lot of gorgeous civilians in this damned town. Walking in Westwood or Beverly Hills, I expect to see gorgeous people, but here I am north of downtown on a workday and every car I pass or which passes me seems to be driven by Ben Affleck or Jessica Simpson. OK, every once in a while I spot an Edward James Olmos driving a landscaping truck, Bea Arthur drives a water delivery truck and makes unsignaled lane changes, and don’t quote me on it but I’m pretty sure I saw Grady from SANFORD AND SON at the helm of a Maserati which had seen better days, but they all looked mahvelous.
South on Fair Oaks, and I pass the theater where Tim Robbins kills the screenwriter in THE PLAYER. Everywhere I go in LA I am surprised to recognize locations used from familiar movies and TV shows. Plus, I was constantly fighting back a secret smirk as I recognized pretty much every major thoroughfare’s name from a childhood wasted watching ADAM 12 and EMERGENCY ( “Squad 51, MVA at Pico and Highland. See the man.” “Roger that, Rampart. 51 responding.”).
I pull up at a cute a cute Pasadena bungalow on a tree-lined side street, the home of my pal Susan, and we shoot the shit for a while. Remember, I’d expected to be away south in San Diego, so I’d not really booked much locally for Thursday. Being a Texan (and therefore “good people” in the classic sense of the phrase), Susan has some Texas beer in her fridge, so I partake. She’s supposed to be cleaning the place for a poker and bullshit thing the next night that I’m supposed to attend, but being a good hostess means blowing off the mundane for the profane, so we decide to wander around and see what we can see.
We swing by Universal Studios where we have have a good bud (we’ll call him “Steve,” as do his parents and all other acquaintances) who works in the legal support office—a suit. He’s already pre-cleared us with security, so Suze and I sail in and submit to the cavity check that gets us past the front gate and then we be-bop up to the 3rd floor of the fabulous Lew Wasserman Building like we know what the hell we are doing.
We get there, find his cubicle empty, and are about to start shouting “Hey-- what the hell?” to the semi-concerned observers in adjacent cubicles, when my cell rings. (Seriously, what did people in LA do before cellphones became de rigueur?) Buddy Steve alerts us to come on down—he’s waiting at the open air café across the drive from the Fabulous Lew Wasserman Building.
In a golf cart.
I laugh, hop in, and away we go.
Now, as I calculate it, there are four possible ways to tour the Universal studios:
1) The easiest and most common is to pay bucks and take the studio tour on the tram.
2) The ballsiest is to simply sprint past the security and see how far into the property you might get before they let slip the dogs of security. The guards themselves seem less than intimidati8ng, as they all seemed a bit older and pudgier than I’d imagined. I asked if we were far from the Joe Don Baker Salon where these guys surely all get their hair helmets coiffed and shellacked.
3) The best way to see the studios is to be escorted around by one of the endless number of gorgeous women wandering around. I’m pretty sure that these trips are reserved for Important People, people with names like Spielberg and Scorsese and Howard, or for guys who have been hired to work with or for these sorts of names. I am not one of those sorts, nor do I work with or for them, but I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard.
The coolest combination of safety, access, and coolness is Option 4: the private golf cart tour from a friend on the inside, and I heartily recommend it to all. (unless, of course, Option#3 is on the table, in which case, rock on, you magnificent bastard.
Steve zooms away as if he owns the damned lot, which is of course yet more of the proper LA ‘tude: “fuck you, I’m important.” We sailed past various large grey-beige buildings the size of airline hangars, most off which had more Joe Don Bakers standing guard, and which usually had a half dozen young men and women in rumpled suits hanging about, smoking and reading from stacks of stapled pages—actors hustling to keep their lines fresh as crews set up for another shot. We screamed past a crowded tour tram, honking to remind then that Goddammit We Are Fucking Important. I tried to act sleepy. Some of the tourists snapped pictures of us. The ‘tude was full on.
We sail around the back lot at what passes for breakneck speed in a golf cart. We rumbled through the city square set of Back To The Future—complete with the courthouse clock frozen in time as it has always been since 1985.
On the corner of the square is the drugstore soda shop set from BTTF, a set which had also been a drugstore in THE STING (the store in which Doyle Lonigan waited for Hooker’s Western Union man to phone in the racing tips). I called my kids at home to tell them where I was. My 8 year old film freak son wanted to know if the drugstore set was painted more like Back To The Future or The Sting.
Smart kid. Weird, but smart.
Back to the cart and again we run tourist trams off their routes, getting more sidelong glances from wandering Joe Don Bakers, more ugly glares from tram drivers and more adoring waves from star struck tram riders from places like Dubuque and Pisswater, Kentucky.
”Oooooh, LOOK, honey! It’s Steve Martin and Kevin Bacon, driving around in a golf cart! AND THEY’RE WAVING! SNAP A PICTURE! QUICK!”
On one especially surreal psychic whiplash inducing 30 second swing around the hill which dominates the back of the Universal lot we emerge onto Whoville from Ron Howard’s THE GRINCH, turn a corner into the parking lot of the Bates Motel, head up the slope past the spooky Bates home (which turns out to be half-scale so as to achieve a forced perspective, giving the house the odd sense off being part off some demented miniature golf park), then slip past the Desperate Housewives street, make another left and slide through the wrecked airliner in the suburbs set off WAR OF THE WORLDS, and then tear through a cobblestone set that looks vaguely like some cheesy European village of the sort that might be used by the 90210 gang to shoot their European adventures.
“This is where the 90210 gang shot their European adventures” Steve tells me as we cut off another tourist-laden tram and carve a turn towards the Old West street set. The Joe Don Bakers watch and keep things under control, the tram driver glares, tourists wave and flash more photos. We smile and wave. The tourists will get back to Tallahassee and tell great tales off the friendly stars they saw waving at them on the tour.
We careen around the back of the hill to this huge concrete covered bowl shaped area which looks like the world’s biggest kiddy pool or perhaps some crazy underused skate park. Along the far end of the pool stands a huge blank white wall which makes me think of a drive-in movie screen built for some never-popularized Super Ultra Mega Maxi Panascopovision Hyperwide Supreme format, or maybe the Great Wall of Chinatown. In front of that wall stands a huge hydraulic platform, and atop the platform is being built what can only be The Ark. Or, at least, the front half of The Ark. Next to The Ark stands a huge black... “device” which boasts several house sized tanks on the top level, lots of motors and pumps below, and huge trough-like sluices leading from the tank to downspouts next to The Ark.
“Wave generator?” I ask?
“Yeah, this is for the sequel to BRUCE ALMIGHTY. I think Steve Carrel is taking over in HEAVEN ALMIGHTY.”
Somehow, like most everything else on the studio tour, it seems kinda underwhelming and almost comically smaller than it ought to be, but I’m sure the magic of CGI—no doubt that huge wall is a bluescreen backdrop for use in compositing the final shots into some stunningly big shot—will give the final shot a grandeur as yet totally lacking.
We sail around the water tank, scream down a hill past some sort of collapsing bridge last used in the old Bionic Woman TV series (“they refuse to tear up anything which might ever have some use down the line...”), around the JAWS shark tour effect show tank (cheesier than the worst action park lost river ride you have ever seen), and then rumble past the executive bungalows, which of course represent sacred ground for aspiring screenwriters.
These are just a series of small unremarkable ranch style bungalows arrayed in a row like some roadside show park for low-end starter homes. When major directors and production companies are working on a picture on the lot, they set up shop in these bungalows for weeks, months—years—at a time. So if you are a writer, your dream is to get a meeting in one of these bungalows, as they are almost always occupied by Serious Players. Steven Spielberg. Ron Howard. Tori Spelling’s gastroenterologist.
As we sail past, I think we all wanted to make some great snarky joke to minimize and undercut the importance of these bungalows as a goal worth working towards, but none of us could really bring ourselves to do it.
One does not mock Paradise while staring through the still-locked Pearly Gates.
Steve swings back to the parking lot and drops us off. He returns to his job (licking stamps on union work agreements for the studio), while Susan and I get back into traffic and head around towards Pasadena.
Suze and I wander over to Bob’s Big Boy on Riverside. Suze explains to me this particular location holds some quirky significance to us screenwriting geeks, as this is the coffee shop where our heroes and close warm money lending friends Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio used to hang out when first starting out, working on stories in long coffee-fueled stretches. Of course, now that T&T are damned screenwriting superheroes (and when you pen a movie which shatters the three-day opening weekend tally to the tune of $135.6 million, by god you get fitted for a cape), they now likely do their brainstorming on platinum zeppelins over fields of greased supermodels, but per usual I digress.
Over lunch, Suze and I decide to head up The Hill to her favorite Starbucks. I figure “why not—we've had a full morning of ass-sitting and it’s been almost three hours since my last non-fat half-caff semi-frozen reverse-thread 5-speed free-range mochalatté.”