It was one of those special boy-meets-girl dates that could change your life forever. The fated moment was back in October 1990, and felt unremarkable at the time. But viewed in hindsight, it was major. On a personal scale, it was like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. The big lizards didn’t know it was an unusual day but suddenly — WHAM!
Here’s how it started: Tracy and I had a casual dinner date at Zucky’s, a funky deli in Santa Monica that was hovering on bankruptcy. Zucky’s was a local, hipper version of Denny’s and eating there was considered ironically cool because it was such a retro piece-of-shit place. You went slumming at Zucky’s to show you were so positive about your future you were willing to spend five dollars on a burnt grilled cheese sandwich that was ‘authentic.’
The year before, Tracy’s brother had sold an original script for an ungodly amount of cash. Now, with his movie in post-production and set for a limited December release to be Academy Awards eligible, he was Hollywood’s flavor-of-the-month. At the tender of age 23, he had written a screenplay so good legendary filmmaker Mike Nichols (The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) directed it. This happens with appalling regularity in the film industry. Some kid gets tapped by the good fairy’s magic wand and suddenly has a golden career. Others get tapped but turn out to be one-hit wonders; sadly they’re not as talented as they wish. I was eagerly awaiting for my good fairy to appear and anoint me as the next big thing.
People like Tracy’s brother gave my inner screenwriter hope that this magic day would come sooner than later. Meanwhile, I was pursuing my master’s degree in critical film theory at USC’s School of Cinema & Television. Studying French theory and the history of German cinema was really an intellectual facade I put on just to hang out at the best film school in the world. I didn’t give a crap about some Freudian analysis explaining how the spaceship Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey actually represented a gigantic white penis. I liked war movies and sports movies and wanted to be a screenwriter, not an academic.
I thought if Tracy’s brother, who was three years younger than me, could get his first script made into a feature film starring Harrison Ford, so could I. Dreams of me giving teary speeches at the Oscars after my sports movie won Best Screenplay filled my head. Alas, this was not reality. I was simultaneously wide-eyed and teeming with hubris back then, a deadly combination.
A skilled Hollywood player would have leveraged dating Tracy into working with her brother. Who knows, if she and I hit it off and we got married, the brother would at least give me an above-the-line job in his fledgling production company, right? That’s what family does — takes care of family. But the idea of nepotism always turned my stomach. I actually had a dim-witted belief that good movies were based on some artistry and not just connections. I was determined to reach the pinnacle of Hollywood success on my own terms, not by fucking my way to a ‘screenplay by’ credit. I didn’t go out with Tracy in pursuit of money, fame, and power. Rather, I thought she was cute, intelligent, and nice. In short: a great girl and a ‘good catch,’ as my grandmother used to say.
Of course her brother was J.J. Abrams. I had no idea he would go on to direct a Mission: Impossible movie, write and produce some of the most successful TV series in history, reboot the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, and transform himself into King Midas. Everything J.J. touches turns to gold. There is nothing Hollywood honors more than money in the bank, and attaching J.J. Abrams to a project is guaranteed money in the bank. The total box office of his movies is $2,423,206,991. Add in the revenue generated by his television empire and you’re looking at somebody who’s creative output is worth a staggering five billion dollars. Had I played my cards right and become J.J.’s go-to writer via his sister, I could’ve written episodes of Lost, Alias, and Westworld. I could’ve done a dialogue punch up on Star Wars: The Force Awakens or given James Tiberius Kirk a few choice words to say about unromantic Vulcans. I might’ve even been the screenwriter on a Tom Cruise movie, and soaked up all the benefits that come with being a member of the Writers Guild of America, including a decadent health insurance plan.
But no. What stopped my success deader than roadkill was my overconfidence coupled with my midwestern naïveté. I believed in self-reliance and felt I didn’t need anybody’s help. I would make it my way, like Benjamin Franklin, Tom Edison, and Abe Lincoln. It’s the great American myth: that you can rise from a humble background to the top of your profession through honesty, integrity, and hard work. Unfortunately, the Horatio Alger trajectory doesn’t apply to Hollywood.
As I sat across from J.J.’s sister in Zucky’s that night, sipping my Coke and chewing my dry turkey burger, we had a delightful conversation. We were connecting. For a moment, we held hands under the table and the zing of chemistry danced across our damp fingertips. It was a scene that’s dramatized in hundreds of movies, the one where the couple starts to like each other but then — oops. A problem. The topic turned to gun control. J.J.’s sister had a strong leftist view on the matter. I was libertarian in my outlook. This was before Columbine, before Sandy Hook, Parkland, and the Pulse nightclub shooting and the Vegas massacre. America was innocent back then, and so was I. I thought the Bill of Rights was all America needed, so why worry about guns? We didn’t exactly argue over the subject, but I remember thinking: “There’s no way I can get along with a woman who wants to restrict basic American freedoms.” Time proved me wrong and my views on gun control have changed. Today I believe no maniac should have a firearm, and especially not overzealous militarized police who like to shoot unarmed minorities, often in the back.
My youthful arrogance proved costly. I was so opinionated and confident in my stupid corn-fed worldview, I never gave myself the chance to truly understand Tracy. I didn’t provide the opportunity for love to enter the room. We didn’t see each other again.
A couple years later, I got to know J.J. Abrams while I was working at Gracie Films. Like his sister, he was kindhearted, one of the few decent people in a town teaming with assholes and braggarts. He even invited me to a party at his house on Tigertail Road in the hills north of Brentwood. I attended, but the power imbalance between us was gigantic since his star had risen even further. I was clearly subordinate to him. I was the sullen guy who brought him coffee and copied his scripts. (He was writing an adaption of Speed Racer at the time, a mess.) My shot at being part of his inner circle had passed. I never mentioned I knew his sister. However, I did summon my courage and asked him to read one of my screenplays. He said yes, which in Hollywood-speak is a polite rejection. His time was too valuable to waste on me. I’m sure he saw me as just another fanboy wannabe, and I don’t blame him. Maybe in an alternate universe, I could have clawed my way up to J.J.’s level or even been his brother-in-law, but instead I chose to be an idealist, too noble to beg for favors or jobs.
The lesson is this: when on a date with the sister of a screenwriter who’s got Hollywood by the balls, let go of your ego. Be open-minded. And be nice. Idealism doesn’t get hired. It always pays to remain close friends with people in the circles of power, even if your romantic connection isn’t perfect. Besides, no romantic connection is ever perfect, but a few million dollars in the bank brings a lot of comfort.