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.
“As you know,” Leslie Schur told me, “I’m looking for a development executive to help Darcy read scripts, write coverage, and meet new writers. You have a very strong résumé and the Fishman Agency says good things about you.”
We were breakfasting at Il Fornaio in Beverly Hills, a trendy place favored by the cabal that runs Hollywood. Leslie’s tiny body barely moved beneath her mushroom-cloud hairdo. She ate using small movements. Nothing was wasted.
“The sample coverage you did on our Dalai Lama project was sharp,” Leslie said between thoroughly chewed bites of her zucchini omelet. “I was surprised by your insight about needing to cast an Asian in the main role. That’s the kind of analysis I find useful.”
I blushed. “As a writer, it’s easy for me to see structural problems in a story.”
Leslie neatly arranged her silverware on the table. She waved over a busboy. After he cleared away her dishes, Leslie’s tiny black eyes stared at me, not blinking.
“Unfortunately, I’ve decided to hire someone else,” Leslie said. “This has nothing to do with your coverage and notes. Those were some of the best I’ve read in a long time. But I really need someone whose strength is networking.”
My emotions fluctuated wildly, from elation to swirling in a toilet bowl.
“However,” Leslie went on. “A situation has arisen that might interest you. I fired my assistant this week and need a replacement. I know it’s not the kind of reader-analyst job you’re looking for, but it is a great way to learn who’s who. Are you interested?”
I set my water glass on the table and considered Leslie Schur’s offer. She was giving me the opportunity to network in an industry where relationships are more important than talent. Rolodexes more valuable than brains. I should have asked about the salary, benefits package, hours, and what my duties would be as her assistant. But my credit cards were dangerously maxed out, and I was desperate.
“I can start tomorrow,” I said.
Week three on the new job. Monday morning. Nine forty-five. Leslie Schur blew into Schur Fire Productions with hurricane force.
“Good morning, people,” she said. “Eugene, my coffee. Stephanie, tell Darcy to see me. Sam, give me a few minutes to get settled and then we’ll run the calls.”
Leslie disappeared into her office. Darcy followed her in carrying a pile of screenplays under her arm.
Twenty minutes later, Leslie shouted, “Sam!”
Darcy staggered out of Leslie’s office while I hurried into the hot seat.
“Move my lunch with Sandra on the fourteenth to the thirtieth. Make dinner reservations with Joel. RSVP the Clinton fundraiser. When is that?”
I shuffled through my stack of invites, letters, and movie premier passes. I found the fundraiser invitation card.
“The eighteenth,” I said.
“Call Tom Illius at William Morris and tell him I can’t do drinks tonight. Who do I meet for lunch?”
“Andrew Scheinman from Castle Rock canceled,” I told her.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Leslie asked.
“I didn’t have time yet.”
“Never mind. Call Judy at Hoffman Travel. Make sure I have a window seat for my flight to New York. First class, left side of the plane. On arrival, I need four tickets to a Broadway show. First ten rows only. Phantom or Miss Saigon. Saturday night.”
I scribbled down Leslie’s instructions as fast as possible, trying to prioritize them. It was an impossible task. While everything was equally urgent to Leslie Schur, nothing surpassed the importance of lunch. Lunch was so vital, so top priority, that if I botched my responsibilities there, I would set off a chain reaction that fucked the entire office for a week.
Lunch meant making reservations, confirming them with other assistants, and keeping track of who was running late from what part of town. Most crucially, it was my job to give Leslie Schur a minute-by-minute countdown as the lunch hour approached.
She lifted her eyes from her Day Planner. “Send the latest rewrites on the Webster script to Alec Baldwin. I need to notarize the contracts for Jerry Levin at Warners. And get me another copy of the El Big Grande treatment. Now, let’s run those calls.”
Running calls was industry lingo for getting other power brokers on the phone in rapid-fire fashion to chit-chat with your boss.
“Start with Lovett at CAA, then Levin, then Mark Canton at Columbia. After that, we’ll go down your list,” Leslie barked from her office.
My list. Every assistant in Hollywood had one. All the phone calls logged from the previous three weeks. Notated with LW for Left Word, LWX2 for Left Word twice, and RYC for Returned Your Call. My list was five pages long, single-spaced in a small font, and constantly updated. I checked my watch. It was ten thirty. All the morning meetings around town broke. Twelve lines on my phone lit up simultaneously. Red and green lights blinked. I spent the next two and a half hours frantically connecting call after call.
It barely mattered if Leslie actually talked to someone or not. The goal was to stay in rotation and remain on somebody else’s phone list or for them to stay on hers.
My job was to choreograph the action. Dial the numbers and talk with the other assistants; let Leslie know who was on what line and why; listen in on her conversations and anticipate her point of departure; and most importantly, keep the calls rolling. It was like landing twenty jets on four runways at once.
In a perfect world, Leslie Schur would never hear a dial tone.
While I was connecting new calls, Leslie shouted out requests for Xeroxes and letters to be written.
At three minutes to one o’clock, I shouted, “Three to!”
Leslie emerged from her office adjusting her canary-yellow suit jacket. She handed me Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide. It was 1,600 pages of tiny type. “Look for any old movies that are ripe for a remake.”
“A remake of The Thomas Crown Affair would be a cool,” I suggested as she hurried out the door.
While Leslie was driving her Jaguar out of the parking garage, she called me on her car phone. “Put me through to Jon at Avnet/Kerner.”
I searched the computerized Rolodex. Leslie waited tensely. “Sam, what’s the delay?”
“I’m looking for his number,” I said.
I found the number and dialed. Just as I was connecting Leslie to Jon Avnet, who was also on a car phone, the signal died. Either Jon or Leslie, or both, were trekking over a hill or driving between skyscrapers or into subterranean parking.
Leslie called me back. “Sam, what’s the problem?”
“I don’t know.”
“Try his other line.”
I searched the Rolodex a second time, sweating.
“Sam, I’m waiting.”
“I’m looking up his alternate number.”
“You just called him.”
“My computer froze.”
“Unfreeze it.” Moments later, Leslie told me, “Never mind. I’ve arrived.”
All the blinking phone lines went gray. No more calls. It was like that every day, but some days were worse.
Lunch was the eye of the storm. After it passed, Leslie blew back into Schur Fire with a vengeance. “Where’s the El Big Grande treatment?”
The afternoon crush began.
I dug through a filing cabinet and pulled out a draft from the Projects Pending folder.
I rushed to the Toshiba copier where I unjammed the paper tray, replaced the toner cartridge, cleaned the rollers on the document feed, and made four copies.
The phones rang constantly. I raced from the copier cove back to my desk. At three o’clock, I put the El Big Grande treatment on Leslie’s desk and then dialed AT&T to arrange a three-way conference call with Terry Rossio, who was the hot screenwriter of the moment. The cocksucker had the exact job I spent my life dreaming about.
Once all parties were connected, I held Leslie’s other incoming calls and listened in. Leslie and the writer discussed El Big Grande, a potential Disney movie about a Mexican donkey who plays soccer.
“I don’t like the taco scene,” Terry said.
“What’s the problem?” Leslie asked.
“If it’s a beef taco, it’s nearly cannibalism. A donkey eating a cow. Kids might cry. That’s not the Disney brand.”
“Great catch. Good thing you spotted it. Solutions?”
“We make the donkey a vegan,” Terry said.
“Love it,” Leslie gushed. “Absolutely love it.”
The afternoon dragged into evening.
Finally, at seven forty-five, Leslie emerged from her office to leave for the night. She stopped in front of my desk. “Any messages?”
“Joel pushed your dinner reservations back half an hour.” Then I ran down my list and concluded by saying, “Melissa Corliss called from New York. I said you’d be arriving Friday night.”
“What? Why did you tell her that?” Leslie snapped.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to lie.”
“Sam, don’t share my personal itinerary, not ever.”
“Everybody knows you’re going to New York for meetings.”
“Now they do. Because you can’t keep your mouth shut. Why can’t I find one competent assistant?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, shrinking in my chair.
“It’s not about sorry. It’s a question of trust,” Leslie hissed. “I need to trust my assistant to protect me. That’s the entire job, Sam.”
Leslie Schur stormed out of Schur Fire Productions more agitated than usual.
There were six messages blinking on my answering machine when I arrived home. I collapsed onto my futon and played them.
Three were callbacks from sex-for-hire escorts I had contacted the week before. The fourth message was from Jasmine. She was in marriage counseling, she said, but it was not going well. She left a number and told me to call. She even suggested we get together “for old times’ sake.”
The fifth message was Leslie Schur calling from her car phone. “I’m very disappointed in you, Sam. I expect better judgement from my assistant. Be at the office half an hour early tomorrow morning.”
The sixth message was from Matt Steele. His tone resonated with desperation in a way I had never heard before. I sat up and listened intently.
“Sam, it’s Matt. I’m in jail at the Santa Monica police station. No joke. I need to see you as soon as humanly possible. This is life and death.”
(to be continued…)