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.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about me: I was raised as a Hasidic Jew in an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn. Among the Hasidim, there was no greater crime than going into a cinema, yet there was nothing I loved more than movies. I became hooked on their magic the moment I snuck into Superman when I was eight.
Four years later, I slipped into King’s Theatre on Flatbush Avenue and accidentally caught Rabbi Leibowitz jerking off to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a most excellent film. Our eyes met in horror. As he pulled his hand away from his cock, it vanished like a ghost in the darkness. In the lobby after the show, the rabbi took me aside and said, “Sex is a mystery. Don’t tell anybody you saw me, okay? Do you like candy?”
“My parents forbid it,” I said.
“Here, take this. It’s our little secret.” He gave me a box of lemon drops, a bribe to keep my mouth shut.
My fingers felt a moist stickiness on the cellophane wrapper.
You’d expect an incident like that would scar me forever, but it would take more than a creepy rabbi to kill my love of movies.
I eventually applied to film school at the University of Southern California. When I was accepted, my devout father was disgusted. He told me to change my name. Henceforth, I was no son of his.
I enrolled at USC because I wanted to learn screenwriting from the most legendary teacher in the business, Herb Kane. He was the writing guru who invented using a three-act structure with plot points at key moments supporting a character arc. Since making that breakthrough, he’d become the greatest screenwriting instructor who ever lived. His former students went on to collectively win forty-one Oscars, twenty-six Emmys, and three Best Screenplay Awards at Cannes. Not to mention dozens of other prestigious prizes and honors. I was determined to get into his class.
My flight from JFK deposited me at Los Angeles International Airport, where I jumped into a taxi bound for the USC campus. I was eighteen, had just signed myself into slavery servicing massive student loans, and carried everything I owned in two bags. This is freedom, I thought.
I rolled down my window to marvel at the majestic palm trees and the cloudless sky. It was a blue I’d only seen in movies. The air was dry, hot, and smelled of strange desert plants. Los Angeles felt exotic and full of promise. When the taxi finally arrived at the McClintock gate on the northwest edge of campus, I paid the driver, grabbed my bags, and climbed out of the cab.
USC was an island of money and landscaped opulence located in a sea of urban decay. The area within the guarded gates was a stark contrast to the shitty discount stores and filth-blown streets that surrounded the university. Before I could enter the cool green oasis, a disheveled man approached me.
“Spare change for gas?” he asked. “My wife needs to see a doctor.”
I wanted to begin my Los Angeles adventure with a generous heart, open to possibility.
“I’ll give you five bucks,” I said.
The man held open a calloused palm. “God bless you.”
I took out my wallet.
That’s when I saw him flash a foot-long chef’s knife.
“Gimme that wallet, or I’ll cut you,” he snarled.
The mugger took my wallet, ID, and all my cash. I immediately went to the security guard at the gate for help, but he was a glorified clerk monitoring parking stickers on cars driving onto campus.
“This happens to new kids every semester,” he said.
“Shouldn’t we call the police?”
“Waste of time. Welcome to L.A.”
Two days later, I was sitting in my dorm room, nose buried in one of Syd Field’s screenwriting manuals. Syd was Herb Kane’s protégé, and by reading his book, I could get a jump on my studies before the semester began. Then my door swung open, and Adam Rutter entered my life.
“Looks like we’re roommates,” Adam said. “Are you a faggot?”
I glanced up from Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and stared at Adam in alarm. He stood in the doorway, a large suitcase hanging from each of his meaty hands. His neck was thick, his nose flatly broken and badly mended. His left ear resembled cauliflower. He was deeply tanned, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with BRETHREN CHRISTIAN WRESTLING.
I didn’t know how to respond.
“I asked you a question, faggot. Do you suck dick?”
“Of course not,” I mumbled.
“Good. I don’t like dick suckers and ass lickers. You better not be a homo.”
“Then we might get along. The Bible says fags are an abomination.” Adam walked over and tossed his two suitcases onto his bed. “What’s your major?”
“I’m in film school,” I said. “I’m getting my BFA in screenwriting.”
“That’s a gay major,” Adam declared. “Are you sure you’re not a faggot?”
“You talk like a fag. You have a funny voice. How old were you when you lost your virginity?”
I hadn’t yet.
I lied. “Sixteen.”
Adam grinned and ran both hands through his beach-blond hair, flexing his biceps. “I popped my cherry at twelve with a college girl. What’re your favorite movies?”
“The Breakfast Club, Apocalypse Now, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are my top three,” I said.
“Breakfast Club is okay. There’s a wrestler in it, but no wrestling scenes.”
“There’s a wrestling scene in The World According to Garp,” I offered.
“Sucks dick. That movie is a fag movie. John Lithgow plays a homo douchebag.”
“Technically, his character is transsexual, not homosexual.”
“Small difference to dick suckers and ass lickers,” Adam said, snorting.
“What’s your favorite movie?” I asked.
“Never saw it.” I tried to return to my book.
“Never seen Vision Quest? Holy fuck, dude. It’s the greatest flick of all time.”
“I’ll check it out.”
“You gotta see it.” My new roommate opened his suitcases. Among his rumpled clothes were cans of Budweiser packed in tight. Adam scanned our dorm room. “Where’s our fridge?”
“We don’t have one.” Again, I tried to focus on Syd Field’s screenwriting book.
“What kind of homo are you? How can you not have a dorm fridge? Where’re you from anyway?”
“Whole state sucks ass. What part? The city or upstate?”
“New York City.”
“Grand central faggot. What part of the city? Not the homo zone, I hope.”
I hesitated. I didn’t want to reveal my past, especially to some dumb wrestler. If I told Adam the truth about my upbringing, he’d mock me for sure.
“Brooklyn,” I finally said and left it at that.
“I’m from Huntington Beach. Surf City, USA. Bet you never surfed, huh?”
I shook my head.
“No, of course you haven’t,” he said. “That’s why New York sucks dick. No surf. I bet you’d surf like a girl or a faggot or both.”
Herb Kane’s writing class took place in a seminar room of the George Lucas Building. On the first day, nine of us screenwriting students sat around a long table waiting for Herb to arrive. A minute before class, there was no sign of Herb, but a final student joined us.
“I’m glad you didn’t start without me,” he said. “Where’s Herb?”
People shrugged while I studied this colorful character.
At six feet tall with a runner’s lithe build, he sported shaggy hair and a goatee on a strong chin. He wasn’t dressed cheaply like the rest of us. His affable smile suggested mad bravado. But it wasn’t so much his physical appearance that made him stand out; it was the way he carried himself, with supreme confidence and cocky exuberance. He obviously didn’t care what people thought about him, and that made his personality immediately magnetic.
He sat next to me. “I’m Matt Steele.”
“Samuel Reuben,” I replied.
“Sam,” Matt said, nodding.
“Most people call me Samuel.”
“I’m not most people.”
Finally, Herb Kane entered the room in a rush, sweat on his brow. He wasn’t at all what I expected in a celebrity writing instructor. Herb was stout, and the stubble on his face was dirty white, matching the band of uncombed hair circling his bald head. Without saying a word, Herb walked to the head of the table and set down a leather attaché case scarred from years of use.
He opened his worn bag and pulled out books then a bottle of Cognac, which he set on the seminar table.
I shifted my eyes to Matt Steele.
“He’s fat enough to be a real writer,” Matt whispered.
After clearing his throat, Herb Kane looked up. “Writing can’t be taught. You either have the soul of a writer or you don’t. The purpose of this class, therefore, is to learn if any of you has the soul of a writer.”
Matt raised his hand. “How do we find out?”
“Can you build a skyscraper?” Herb stabbed a finger at Matt, then pushed his thick glasses up the bridge of a bulbous red nose. “A skyscraper, the pyramid of Giza, the Eiffel tower — any of these is a metaphor for a screenplay. You build it bolt by bolt, brick by brick. That’s what writers do. They build things out of words.”
While Matt Steele jotted notes in a marbled black-and-white composition book, Herb poured himself a shot of Cognac.
“Is that Cognac?” another student asked.
“It’s writer’s juice,” Herb answered, smiling. “The great Edgar Allan Poe’s inspiration of choice.”
“We’re not allowed to have alcohol in class,” the student said. “It’s against university policy.”
“I’m aware of that.” A thin smile carved its way across Herb’s face. Then he tapped a finger on the bottle. “This Cognac may even violate federal higher education laws, but that’s not my problem. This is my last semester at USC. Soon, I’ll be retired and living in the south of France. But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Over one hundred students submitted story pitches to be in this class. My teaching assistant assures me your ideas are the ten best. Let’s hear them. Tell me what scripts you’ll be writing.”
One after another, the students took turns explaining visions they hoped to turn into screenplays by semester’s end.
Herb Kane listened to each pitch with disinterest. Or justifiable scorn. The ideas were unoriginal and ill formed. No high concepts, no compelling stories.
Then Matt Steele stood up to address the class. “I’m working on a script called The Money Clip. I wrote a dozen new pages over the weekend.”
Herb Kane perked up. “Let’s hear it, Mr. Steele.”
Matt slid neatly typed pages from a folder and began reading. By the time he finished, I was wowed.
“That’s as far as I got.” Matt Steele sat back down.
“Does the wife live to get revenge?” Herb asked, sipping his Cognac.
“Murder is always interesting if well-motivated.”
“I’m stealing the motivational spine from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
“A strong choice,” Herb said. “I look forward to seeing how your bloody revenge tale plays out. We all do.”
The Money Clip was my first taste of Matt Steele’s professionalism. Then it was my turn.
Herb consulted his class roster and peered at me. “Mr. Reuben, what do you plan on writing this semester?”
“It’s called Sunny Goldberg.”
Herb Kane leaned his elbows on the seminar table and pressed his fingers to his temples. “I hope this isn’t a coming-of-age romance about a prom queen you couldn’t fuck.”
“I wouldn’t write that.”
“A small miracle.” Herb folded his arms across his chest. “Please enlighten us about Sunny Goldberg, Mr. Reuben.”
“He’s a washed-up hockey player who enters a golf tournament to save his synagogue.”
“Is it a drama?”
“A comedy,” I said.
“I see it,” Herb stated, rubbing his temples now. “A cross between The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack. Not very original but not the worst idea today. Will it have the tone of those films?”
“I don’t know. I never saw them.”
“Never seen Caddyshack?” Herb Kane narrowed his bushy white eyebrows at me. “That’s a crime. Caddyshack is the best comedy in the last forty years.”
“I never had the chance to see it.”
“I suggest you watch both Caddyshack and The Blues Brothers several times before you proceed. Hollywood has a long history of wonderful comic Jews, and that pantheon of giants will test you. If you dream of becoming a comic screenwriter, you must study how the great comedies work.”
“I’ll definitely rent both of them,” I said.
Herb refreshed his shot glass. “You must establish your tone on page one, Mr. Reuben. People need to be told right away they’re watching a comedy. If you don’t believe me, ask Jerry Lewis. He blatantly told the world they were all morons, and they just howled with laughter and made him rich.”
(to be continued…)