AUTHOR’S NOTE: Three years ago, I received an email from an old college classmate. He wanted me to write a memoir about the time he spent in Hollywood from 1988–1992 trying to become a screenwriter. He felt his experiences might help anyone who migrates to Los Angeles chasing dreams. I was skeptical at first, but as we talked, I became fascinated by his sordid adventures. What you’re reading is a serialization of his story.
I began my second semester at USC on academic probation. But fuck it. I was ready to fly. I didn’t even pretend to be a student. In my brain, I was a screenwriter now. I used my dorm room as an office, and the only hitch was my Neanderthal roommate. Instead of going to class, I spent my time devouring Joseph Campbell’s dense academic texts on how to structure a hero’s journey. I also bought a copy of the Hollywood Creative Directory and focused on “finding representation,” that is, signing with an agent to promote me as a writer. But my first order of business was to sell Sunny Goldberg.
I started at the top three agencies and left a copy of Sunny Goldberg with the receptionists at each. I never heard back from William Morris or ICM, but CAA returned my script along with a strongly worded legal warning saying they don’t look at unsolicited material. Essentially, “fuck off.”
Next, all the second-rate literary agencies rejected my queries. After they turned me down, I was circling the toilet-bowl feeders, the worst agents in a misbegotten industry. The lowest-tier agents were truly failed human beings. These fast-talking leeches had no ethics and knew they’d never be associated with a quality film. But that left plenty of room for other kinds of exploitation ranging from blow jobs conned off newbie actors to vampiric service fees. Commonly, the third-raters made the bulk of their money by charging expensive reading fees to aspiring writers like myself. In theory, their insightful analysis would give invaluable feedback on how to “fix” a script in order to sell it. Something that never happened. After six of these weasels tried to rip me off, I called Matt for advice.
“Three words,” Matt said. “Get drunk now.”
Following his advice, I went to Bamboo, hoping Katerina would talk to me on her break. Nacho, the scraggly-bearded bartender, set a bottle of Singha beer on the bar in front of me.
“On the house,” Nacho said.
Nacho poured himself a shot of Jack Daniels. “Let me tell you about the screenplay I am writing.”
I had previously made the mistake of mentioning to Nacho that I was a screenwriter. He now assumed that as fellow aspiring writers, we were brothers in arms. He had come to Los Angeles from Barcelona where his father was a diplomat. Like me, Nacho was the family disgrace, shit clinging to the bottom of a fine old-world boot made from Corinthian leather.
I didn’t want to hear about Nacho’s stupid script, but the beer was free. For the next five minutes, Nacho pitched me his horror movie. It was about a woman’s demonic baby that crawls back into her womb to be reunited with its unborn twin so they can fuck each other inside her.
“It will be an incest rape baby conceived by demon babies fucking inside a human host. Scary, yes?”
“You gave me goose bumps,” I said. The creepy urgency of Nacho’s words made me secretly question his mental health.
Nacho moaned through gritted teeth. “I must make movies. If I don’t make movies, I’ll die.”
“You’re a true artist.”
Nacho wiped his hands on a dish towel and returned to stocking the bar. “What’re you working on?”
“I’ve been shopping my screenplay around, but getting a decent agent is impossible.”
At that moment, Katerina set her drink tray at the waitress station. “My friend is married to an agent at Triad. I can set you up.”
“You’d do that?”
“Sure. Is there a good role for me?”
Two days later, Triad’s Conrad Hunter called me from his car phone.
“I love Katerina,” he said. “I’ve always got feelers out for new talent. My assistant will schedule an appointment.”
Like that, I was in.
I took the bus to Matt Steele’s place. He was living off campus in a Venice Beach cottage, and I wanted to tell him about my good fortune in person.
“Matt, I’ve never taken a meeting before. I don’t want to mess this up.”
“Then you better get your shit together.” Matt sat at his kitchen table. It was littered with books on European cultural theory by Derrida, Bazin, and Foucault. “It’s easy to sell one script. Even my UPS driver sold a script nine years ago. Since then he’s schlepped a lot of boxes but hasn’t optioned anymore screenplays. The big money is in long careers.”
“Give me a strategy,” I said.
Matt looked up from his homework. “Being good in a pitch meeting is the most important skill you can learn. That’s where you establish your identity. The Sam Reuben brand.”
I rubbed my chin, thinking. “My brand? How do I make that?”
“First, don’t let these agents paint you with the same gray brush. If they see you as just another writer, you’re dead. It’s career suicide.”
I searched around for pen and paper to take notes. “How do I become more colorful? I’m just me.”
“You could learn a memorable card trick.”
“I’m not a magician.”
“You need to do something. Screenwriting isn’t about writing. It’s about talking. A used-car salesman stands a better chance of selling a screenplay than a poet. When you’re talking to an agent, you’re selling your brand, not your scripts.”
“I thought writing good material would be enough.”
“Spoken like a true ass-tard. Quality doesn’t matter in the cruel desert of capitalism.”
“So what do I do?” I asked.
“Show them you’re a fountain of endless ideas. The last time I pitched The Money Clip, I shit the bed. And when they didn’t bite on the hook, the fish was lost.”
I scratched my chin. “No sale.”
“Want to hear the master secret of pitching?”
“Weak answer. A confident writer would say, ‘Fuck yeah, I’m fucking ready. Let me stick my dick in!’”
“I’m fucking ready. Tell me the secret.”
Matt leaned back in his chair. “Never underestimate the stupidity of producers nor the avarice of agents. If somebody is both stupid and money grubbing, they become a studio executive. That’s the angle you can always exploit: insatiable greed.”
For the next week, I prepped for my meeting with Conrad Hunter. I wrote down dozens of movie ideas on note cards. I rehearsed pitches. Repetition polished my delivery. The night before my meeting, Adam Rutter came home from a party and caught me talking to myself in the mirror.
“What’re you doing, faggot?” he said. “Getting ready to jerk yourself off?”
“I have a meeting with an agent tomorrow.”
“For that homo golf screenplay you wrote?”
“Yes,” I told him.
“I can help your fag ass.”
This kindness was a first from my roommate. “Bullshit.”
“Sammy, you didn’t grow up here. You don’t know how agents work.”
Now I was intrigued. Maybe my idiot roommate had native insight. “I’m listening.”
“All agents are total homos. So if you wanna sell your faggot script, you’re gonna have to suck his gay dick.” Adam snorted with laughter then punched me in the arm hard enough to bruise. “Good luck, faggot. Remember to wipe the cum off your chin.”
The following morning, I took a bus into Century City. I disembarked and looked around. This was the most sterile area of Los Angeles. Modern, sleek, and soulless. A commercial district of towering glass-and-steel office buildings with no storefronts, pedestrians, or signs of life. Then I spotted the Die Hard building, the Fox tower that was used in the movie as the fictional Nakatomi Plaza. My heart fluttered. Seeing a famous movie location in person made me feel connected to the entire wondrous history of Hollywood.
I soon found the skyscraper that housed Triad Artists and rode the elevator to the Triad floor. I told the receptionist I had a meeting with Conrad Hunter. Then, I waited in the lobby for twenty minutes. Finally, a pert assistant walked out and announced, “I’m Sloan. Mr. Hunter will see you now.”
The assistant led me into Conrad Hunter’s office. I expected her to leave. She didn’t. Instead, she took a seat on a black leather couch.
Conrad sat behind a gleaming all-glass desk that crowded his spacious office.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, shaking my hand. “Sloan’s going to sit in on your pitch. It’s part of her agent-in-training program.”
Sloan smiled and adjusted the hem on her black cocktail-party dress.
Conrad checked his wristwatch. “By the way, Katerina told me a crazy story about you. Just one question: Is it true? The shark thing?”
“She told you about my penis?” I blurted.
“Stories like that are impossible not to share. So it’s true.”
“Goddamn.” Conrad shook his head. “It’s a crazy world. Is genital mutilation what your screenplay is about?”
I looked at Conrad’s and Sloan’s eager faces. Were they really expecting a tell-all story about a mangled circumcision? “Not at all. It’s a golf comedy called Sunny Goldberg.”
Conrad held up his hand. “Wait a second. Your movie’s called Sunny Goldberg?”
“Horrible title, absolutely horrible. Go on.”
I started to tell them about my movie. But fifteen seconds into my pitch, Conrad held up his hand a second time. “Stop.”
“You said Sunny Goldberg is a comedy, right?”
“You want to be a comedy writer. Is that correct?”
“It is,” I said.
“The funniest Jews on Earth live within five miles of this room. Let’s see how you rate. Tell us a joke.”
“We need to see if you’re funny.”
“My writing class laughed at my work.”
Conrad and Sloan shared a knowing look.
“Oopsie.” Sloan snickered.
“Exactly,” Conrad confirmed. “Oopsie.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Tell the lad, Sloan.”
Sloan turned to me. “Unless you wrote for The Harvard Lampoon, school doesn’t count. All writing classes are psychotherapy for frustrated losers who want to feel better about their sad little lives.”
“Correctamundo.” Conrad slapped his desk. Sloan preened like a pet dog completing a trick.
“But this was USC,” I countered.
“Nobody cares. Only one student in a thousand ever gets to direct a movie. The rest will ride a desk directing phone calls. So let’s hear some jokes. Give us your best material, the dirtier the better. No virgin ears here.” Conrad Hunter gestured a hand at me, urging me to perform.
“I don’t know any dirty jokes.”
“That’s a huge problem if I’m sending you out to meetings as a comedy writer. Development executives like to be entertained. And they’re a bunch of foul-mouthed pricks so they like it dirty. Show the boy how to tell a dirty joke, Sloan.”
Sloan smiled, her ice-pink lipstick parting to reveal perfect teeth as she spoke. “A blonde cheerleader walks into a bar. A big black football player looks at her and says, ‘Honey, you’re gonna get laid tonight.’ She says, ‘How do you know?’ And he answers, ‘Because I’m stronger than you.’”
Conrad chuckled heartily. “Good one, Sloan. You can never go wrong with racist sex jokes. It’s one of the four pillars of American humor.”
“I know forty-seven jokes about cock, pussy, and rape,” Sloan informed me.
I looked at her. She didn’t even blink. She was dead serious about using the full powers of her Ivy League education at Triad.
Conrad popped a piece of Nicorette gum into his mouth and chewed, thinking. “Do you know what I’d like to see?”
I shook my head. “No. What?”
“Imagine there’s a woman, beautifully sexy, so crazy freaking sexy that you are mad to fuck her.”
Sloan smiled encouragement, eyebrows lifting. “I can picture that.”
Conrad continued, “But the kicker is this: she’s in a wheelchair and you can’t fuck her. If you banged the shit out of her, even dicked her ass with a footlong cock, she couldn’t feel it. Now, what about that idea?”
Sloan nodded thoughtfully and purred, like Conrad’s pitch had the weight of War and Peace.
“You mean as a movie?” I said.
“A fuckable quadriplegic babe in a wheelchair.” Conrad pointed a pen at me for emphasis. “Pulls at your heartstrings. Everybody feels sorry for her. You write that movie, and I’ll be interested in representing you. Hell, I’d be fighting with every agent in town over that kind of gold. Tell him why, Sloan.”
She rose from her couch and stared down at me. “Because being a great agent is not a right, it is a privilege.”
(to be continued…)