Wandering back to the Renaissance, I get a call from The Wife back home in Texas. She is giggling about a call I just received on the home number, a call from some LA-based... “producer.” I won’t go into any great detail about this guy as I am sure he is a warm and wonderful human being who treats animals nicely and helps little old ladies do their shopping, but he struck The Wife as such a smarmy Hollywood cliché that she claims she had to physically bite her knuckle and hold the phone away from her mouth to not be heard giggling and guffawing as this guy gave his pitch to get his hands on my script. She says she gave him my cell number and that he’d likely be calling, so stand ready. She gives me his callback number and I decide to cut him off at the pass, responding first.
I check the time and see that it’s now straight up 1 pm, the thick part of the Hollywood working lunch hour, so I figure this is as good a time as any to call and hope for a machine to pick up rather than a human.
”Hi, this is Brett. I just got word you were trying to get in touch with me regarding my script for QUEEN OF THE SKY. I’m flattered by the interest, and I know my agent would love to talk to you at your convenience. His number is ...” blah blah blah.
I never hear back from this guy for the rest of the week, but in talking to the other Finalists it becomes quickly apparent that this guy is calling everyone, and just because we are ugly evil vindictive shallow people of poor character and shabby upbringing, his calls become something of a touchstone or running joke to the rest of us as we compare the latest contacts from him. (Curiously, I was unique among the group in never hearing back from the guy, and I suppose my use of the word “agent” was enough to spook him away...)
Across Hollywood Boulevard and through the oddball assortment of characters there: tourists, homeless folks, LA bimbos, guys dressed as The Hulk or Santa Clause for no clear reason.
I wander through the shopping arcade and past the fountain-and-reflecting pool area which has been turned into a cranberry bog for some sort of commercial filming. There are two guys dressed in waders and plaid shirts, just as in the Ocean Spray commercials, knee deep in the pool which is now covered by a floating layer of cranberries. A four man camera crew works to get just the proper shot and lighting.
At the Victoria’s Secret store, a cordon of bored security guys mark a wide perimeter as a small herd of over-tall over-blonde over-hawt over-slutty 20-year-old bimbettes prance around in lingerie and 5 inch heels (as women are so prone to do). I pause to watch for a few seconds, and I make eye contact with one of the bored security guards. I give him the hands up shrug to ask ”what the fuck, dude?” and he answers with the exhausted head shake and eye roll which says “who the fuck knows, bro. Who the fuck knows.”
”Welcome to Hollywood, luv,” I think to myself as I step into the elevator and head up.
A nap, a shower, and a writing session later I hook up down in The Worst Bar In The World with Sidney (King) and Dave (Mango), two fellow Finalists also staying at the Renaissance. King and Mango both are winners of Nicholl Fellowships, so on the one hand I’d like to go all Khmer Rouge on them and leave them dead in a ditch (I have a violent vengeful fantasy life), but on the other they are really great guys and fun to hang out with, so the Killing Fields thing never really happens. We have a drink and decide to hump it on foot to the Academy offices where we Finalists are meeting as a group for the first time in order to get to know each other and to meet Greg Beal and his staff and to get the lowdown on what is expected and anticipated to happen this week, plus to get fed and get handed our per diem money.
One of the (many) advantages I seem to have over many of the other Finalists is my familiarity with this whole Nicholl thing. I’ve been lucky enough to have very good friends as Finalists for several years now, so I’ve heard their stories and talked to them over beers and plied them with pentathol to get the skinny. SO I know, for example, that part of the first night’s fun is Greg Beal rather unceremoniously walking around the room and tossing out envelopes of cash to the finalists, with the amount inside roughly tied to your expected minimum expenses during the week. And, yes, I’m just cheap and white trash enough to look forward to that moment as much as if not more than the awards photo op or the awards dinner.
Cecelia and Amy, fellow Finalists and co-authors of Amelia Erheart and the Baloney Rainbow Highway, opt for a cab to the meeting, but Mango, King and I head off cross country on foot, down Hollywood Boulevard toward Vine Street.
And friends and neighbors, if you’ve never walked down Hollywood Boulevard at or after dusk, you may have strange visions in your head of what that stroll might be like, and I am here to tell you that your visions are likely wrong. Yes, there are block after block of randomly organized brass stars set into the pavement on the “Walk of Fame,” and yes there are lots of fancy expensive cars sliding past on the boulevard, but what there ain’t is a lack of much anything you couldn’t find in the run down part of any major urban area. In other words, there is nothing “Hollywood” about Hollywood: it’s a dirty dingy and very seedy part of town where street-folks seem to live wherever they decide to lay down. We step over a half dozen prone or lounging folks dressed in greasy layers of cast-off clothing pulled from dumpsters and trashcans, pass a dozen low-rent tattoo parlors and finance companies, plus of course this is still Los Angeles so of course we also pass the obligatory three Starbucks and two location shoots in progress.
We turn right down Vine and push on into territory even less glamorous and impressive. Eventually we reach the Academy offices, located in a building that looks like it was designed and built to withstand a siege by Vandals and Ostrogoths. From the sidewalk we can look up to a wide wall of glass lit from within: a eight-foot tall golden Oscar™ statue is clearly visible, as is a six-foot tall Greg Beal™, sipping a coke and waving down at us.
We head to the front door of the building and are met by a uniformed guard at a desk, who explains we cannot enter the building through this lobby entrance but must instead of around to the freight entrance in the rear parking lot. The guard then waves another couple through the door and greets them with a cordiality very much absent in his dealings with us Nicholl schlubs.
We pad around the corner, past the Circle K and past the 8 foot cyclone fence topped by concertina wire, and through the electric gate into the parking lot where we find a ramp to a rear door. We enter, are waved into a small security office where we sign our names, describe our purpose and are handed ID tags to hang around our necks. We then get an escort down a long gray concrete hallway which surely was purchased war surplus from a NORAD missile silo, and emerge into the same front-of-the-building lobby to which we were denied entrance three minutes previous. The same security guard who was all glum and business now trots over, smiling and cheerful, and calls an elevator for us, wishing us a good evening. “And congrats on the Nicholl -- that’s huge!”
The doors slide shut as Dave and Sidney and I trade confused looks.
In the second floor board room we finally meet the entire 2007 Nicholl class as a group. Dave and Sidney and I all end up at the far end of the table, grouped together. When we all grab a beer from a bucket of iced longnecks and notice that we three are the only people in the room imbibing thusly, we shrug and clink bottles in salute.
Greg, a truly cool guy who looks like that college prof who always seem slightly more concerned and exasperated about your grades that you are, gives the welcome, explains kinda sorta what’s going on, and then has us engage in a ritual that will be repeated enough times to become a tiresome cliché over the course of the next few days: ”Let’s go around the table and do some introductions. Give your name, where you’re from, and the title of your script.” Finally, someone gets tired of looking at and smelling the buffet of catered food arrayed on the table nearby, and we all leap to pile our plates. As we sit and relax and get to know one another a little better, Greg circles the table, casually tossing out envelopes scribbled with our names. None of us wants to seem overly interested, and I start to laugh as I realize nobody wants to be seen checking their envelope to see just how much cash we are getting.
As I’ve noted before, one of the truly surprising yet cool parts of this experience is the fact that I found myself genuinely enjoying the company and conversation with every one of the other finalists. I’ve been in groups of randomly assembled writers before where there are one or two or nine whom you just want to beat with a canoe paddle, but with this group I get none of that. Maybe it’s because there is a baseline level of competence and talent required just to be at this table, or maybe it’s because we’re all equally freaked by the situation and are thus eager to claim whatever sense of community and companionship we can in this strange time, or, hell, maybe it’s the open bar, free food, and envelopes of cash making everyone just a little more friendly and accommodating. All I know is that soon it’s past 9:30 PM and Greg is starting to get that antsy ”OK, PLEASE go home now” look and tone.
Except we’re all having too much fun, and none of us is quite ready to call it a night. So, standing around in the hallway, we quickly decide to meet at The Cat & Fiddle, a popular and convenient pub over on Sunset, halfway back to our hotel. Most all of the finalists show up. Some locals—Mike and Julian—have obligations elsewhere and say their goodbyes at the Academy building, but the rest of us pile into cars and head to the Cat. Andrew Pritzker hauls me and Dave to the pub, and we find a table on the vine-draped huge patio and set up shop. The other finalists soon gather with us, and we spend a few more hours sipping beer and talking about how we got here and how weird it is to look up and see that we did get here.
I’ve tried explaining it to The Wife before: the weird sense of need that we writers sometimes get to find others like us and share some of the terror and heartbreak of this largely solitary pursuit. We spend so many hours and days and weeks alone with a keyboard and a screen, that we start to get that Omega Man sense of being the last man on Earth, so when we find ourselves in the rare company of other writers—folks who understand exactly what this feeling is like—we tend to want to suck as much from that experience as is possible. We keep tossing wood on the fire, not wanting that little gathering to end, as we know it might well be a long time before we again have such opportunity to commiserate.
The local LA contingent of our crew—Lisa Gold, Nick Sherman, Andrew Shearer, John Marlow—all peel off well before the end of the night. Andrew P is an out of towner at the Renaissance, but he has LA friends he needs to meet, so he leaves as well. Eventually, Dave and Sidney and I again find ourselves at a table in the wee hours, empty beers everywhere and replacements on the way, and then the waitress shoos us into the streets sometime around 1:30 am., whereupon we look up and see the Renaissance looming just a few blocks over. Except we’re still not entirely ready to surrender to that little death known as sleep, so we find a late-night diner on Highland and slide into a booth to burn some more of our little envelopes of cash.
More frank and honest talk among strangers as we talk about the weird mix of allure and repulsion Hollywood presents to each of us. Screenwriting is a strange business in that there’s pretty much only one place where the business really happens, and so there’s an understood requirement that, to be a real part of the business, you have to put in at least some time in Hollywood, yet at the same time a great many people chasing that dream make no bones about the fact that they detest—loathe, abhor, become sickened by the thought of—the idea of having to live in or near Hollywood. This is not to suggest that Hollywood is pure evil, or that any who tolerate or even enjoy life there are somehow wrong or weird or confused. It’s just that life there is so very very different and alien, that for many the differences are sever and numerous enough to convince you that you’d just not be happy here long term.
But we all agree that we could stomach it long enough to get paid great heaping gobs of money.
We toast our 3 am milkshakes to that plan, over-tip egregiously cuz we’re all fat-cat high-rollers living on the Academy dime, and shuffle into the night, heading back toward our over-cool hotel home for the week.
(to be continued....)