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.
The next day in the Lucas Building, I pulled Matt Steele aside. “Your plastic surgeon wanted to give me a nose job.”
“I told you he was good. He can spot physical deformities from a mile away. What’d Weinberger say about your dick?”
“It’ll cost eight thousand dollars to fix.”
“Ouch. When are you going to do it?” Matt asked, hushed. “I’ll drive you to the hospital. It’s an act of mercy.”
“I don’t have eight grand. He offered me a deal. Said my surgery could only cost five thousand.”
“You Jewed him down? Awesome, dude!” Matt exulted.
“There’s a catch. I’d have to become his screenwriting partner.”
“That fucking bastard.” Matt slapped his palm against the wall. “He never asked me to be his writing partner. I had to pay full freight.”
Then Matt Steele stormed into class and slumped into a chair. He hated being beaten in a deal.
Herb Kane slapped twenty pages of my screenplay on the table. “Your dialogue is as entertaining as watching a Tijuana whore try to fuck donkey dick. There’s no venom, no truth.”
“How do I write good dialogue?” I asked.
“Make your characters stink. Let them say things that would shock your mother.”
“You want dialogue with ‘nigger’ and ‘kyke’ in it?” I said.
“Only if it’s believable.”
Matt Steele was scribbling in his marble-covered notebook. “Is there a secret to making it believable?”
Herb’s eyes shifted to Matt. “Know every character’s backstory, even if it’s never explicitly stated. Take me, for example. You know me as your screenwriting instructor, but you probably don’t know that I’m gay. Though I don’t advertise my sexuality, being a gay man informs who I am. The same must hold true for your characters. Even if you don’t show it, what you leave out determines a great deal. Ninety percent of an iceberg is hidden, but it’s still powerful enough to sink the Titanic.”
Over the succeeding weeks, I took Herb Kane’s advice to heart. I reworked my script, making my characters stink. I improved their dialogue by inventing interesting backstories for each of them. But I was still many pages short of a finished screenplay as our final class session approached.
In despair, I called Matt Steele late one night and asked how he was faring.
“I haven’t written anything in a month,” he confessed.
“But you were on a roll. What happened?”
“Tammy, Randi, and Kristen are happening. All my relationships started heating up at exactly the same time and are sucking away every free moment I have. I’m out all night, every night.”
“I can’t believe you’re dating three women,” I said.
“Kristen and I aren’t officially dating. It’s more like a mindless fuckfest.”
“Does she know about Tammy and Randi?”
“That’s what turns her on, knowing I’m choosing her over them. But Tammy and Randi don’t know about Kristen, or each other.”
I heard fatigue in Matt’s voice. A chink in his armor. Was his immense personal charisma being sucked out his cock? Had his steely charm reached a limit?
“Guess you’re not gonna finish The Money Clip then,” I said.
“Not this semester. But one of us has to knock out a screenplay in that jackass class. I nominate you.”
“I won’t let you down.” I hung up the phone, more determined than ever to finish writing Sunny Goldberg.
The last week of that semester, I skipped all my other classes and confined myself to my dorm room. Screw everything else.
The words didn’t come easy. It was like mining coal with a garden trowel. But my singular devotion to Sunny Goldberg gained me twenty pages of hard-won prose. Still, I needed twenty more. I faced one of the most difficult struggles imaginable. A classic conflict of man versus himself. On the night before our final class, I knew if I wanted to finish my screenplay, there could be no sleep. I stocked up on Snicker bars and Coca-Cola. Sugar is brain fuel.
I was launching Microsoft Word when Adam Rutter burst in. “Hey, faggot, I need the room private tonight. Vamoose.”
“Can’t,” I said. “I’m pulling an all-nighter.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I said I need the room. I got a hottie on tap, and I’m gonna bang her pussy.”
“Can’t you go somewhere else?”
The muscles in Adam’s neck tensed. His face reddened and his lips pressed together tightly. He was struggling to control his volcanic temper.
Balling his hands into fists, he said, “Go write your homo shit somewhere else, or I wrestle you into the hospital. Either way, I’m getting the room tonight.”
I unplugged my computer and printer; gathered all my soda and candy bars and a ream of paper. Then I lugged everything to the common area at the end of our dorm hall and set up a work area there.
It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than arguing. Suddenly, in the new writing space I was unleashed. I realized the dank corner of my dorm room was a prison of failed habit. Being in the light and noise of the common area freed me, and I typed like a rocket. Twelve hours later, my printer spewed out the final pages of Sunny Goldberg.
I arrived at class late. When I pushed open the door, all heads turned. Herb Kane blinked at me from the far end of the table.
“Glad you decided to join us today, Mr. Reuben.”
“I was copying my script.” I whipped out my completed screenplay. Tossed it on the polished table. It slid into Herb’s lap.
Herb flipped through the pages. “Hot off the presses, eh? Let’s proceed and see what we’ve got here. You have copies for us all?”
I passed out copies of Sunny Goldberg to every student in class. They still had that fresh Xerox smell. Each classmate was assigned characters to play. Then we began a read-through. My words sprang to life. The student acting added to the hilarity of my script.
As class ended, we still had fifteen pages left to read. Herb insisted the entire class stay to the last word. When we reached the end, Herb stood up. “It’s actually kinda funny. Good work, Mr. Reuben.”
Herb led my classmates in a round of applause. I didn’t say anything. But that approval had an addictive sweetness.
After class, I was gathering my things to leave when Herb said, “Mr. Reuben, a word with you.”
I exchanged a glance with Matt. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
Then I went to the head of the table where Herb Kane was closing his attaché case. “Yes?”
“Son, I appreciate your mad effort,” Herb said. I smelled booze on his breath. “How are your other classes going?”
“Not so well. I blew off finals to concentrate on my writing.”
“I’ve never said this to any other student at USC, not even Robert Zemeckis.” Herb hesitated, searching for the right words. “You don’t need college to be a screenwriter, and you certainly don’t need my silly old ideas.”
“Real writers have a phoenix burning within them that rises red-hot from the fire of creation. I see it in you, the burning phoenix. If you flunk out of USC, it doesn’t matter. Your phoenix is real. Just keep writing, son.”
“I will, Mr. Kane.”
He produced a flask from his attaché case and offered it to me. “Want some Cognac?”
(to be continued…)