Back in film school, I managed to land a spot in a legendary class called "The Art of the Pitch." It's taught by a one-time Famous Scary Superagent, now a Big Deal Producer, who's known for bringing students up to the front of the classroom and figuring out how to make us cry. Nobody knows the exact purpose of this exercise, but the consensus is that it’s a rite of passage pulled from some Lou Gossett, Jr. in An Officer And A Gentleman school of tough love. Survivors agree they’ve been somehow advanced to a new level of self-awareness afterward that could only enhance their future success “in the room.”
I’d not yet been in the room—which roughly translates as any place where two or more Alleged Hollywood Types gather to drink bottled water and tell each other lies—but boy I sure wanted an invite. I knew even then that script assignments were made behind those doors, and I already understood how little landing one had to do with one’s demonstrated ability to go home and write it. I’d have to navigate some very strange waters if I was ever going to sell an idea, or even join the club and steal somebody else’s—and Scary is one of the guys who wrote the book on all that.
Instead of pitching your original movie in class, which he promises you will do very badly, he asks you to get up and tell a true, three-minute story. Though its actual content is off limits, Scary, with the help of your reluctant classmates, subsequently critiques every facet of your presentation—from what your voice level and body language reveal about the real you, to the hidden truth behind your choice of hairstyle, clothes and shoes. Just to keep you guessing, you never know at what point during the term you’ll be called up to speak.
When my time came with the silent wave of a strangely tan and muscular finger, I sucked in a breath and took center stage to describe a recent Women in Film awards ceremony where I was given a scholarship. This is the first time I’d walked down a red carpet, and even though the paparazzi flashbulbs came to a dead halt when I arrived, I felt as glamorous as an Oscar nominee marching along in my curly up-do and plus-sized cocktail gown hot off the rack from Macy’s Woman.
Afterward, however, when I went to retrieve my car, my credit card was declined. This Anassuming Regular Joe behind me in line, who seemed even more out of place among the glitterati than I, came to my rescue, gallantly ponying up twelve bucks cash for the valet. He wouldn't even give me his address so I could return it. We instantly fell in love, I was convinced, and agreed without another word that we should marry at once. He looked a little scruffy around the edges, with a day-old beard and a soup-stained tie, but I felt sure we could work through all that together. Then he asked me to watch his goodie bag so he could go find his wife. He returned with Brooke Shields, who towered over me like some mythical creature, meeting my gaze right around the level of her spectacular bustline. The fabulous Hollywood Power Couple then jumped into their big black SUV and went home to make a baby. I didn’t even get to keep their goodie bag.
The class was in stitches. We love to laugh and people who make us laugh, we’d all learned in Structure Class. I’d happily acknowledged the height-weight disproportionate elephant in my room and managed to have some fun with it along the way, making me an artful pitcher if ever there was one.
Scary seemed to disagree, shaking his head on the sidelines. “That’s a very sad story,” he finally pronounced.
“Hello, it’s pathetic!” said I. “Welcome to my world!”
Scary silenced yet another big laugh from the class with a death stare intense enough to have earned him his nickname in and of itself. “Well? How did all that make you feel?” he demanded to know.
Wait a minute now, he wasn’t supposed to be talking about content, let alone leading some kind of bonfire meeting at fat camp. Scary was playing dirty with me—and I was nothing short of enthralled by the chance to play back.
“I felt short and wide,” I replied. “There I was bursting my seams with potential.”
That one even got a laugh from Scary—who threw back his head and opened his mouth to show off a pricey set of veneers.
He, conversely, never did manage to elicit any tears from me, on that night or any other. One time he got so mad at my unflappably sparkling demeanor that he ripped down a heavy black drape he’d been twisting throughout my flawless monologue. Wagering that I’d rehearsed myself immune from de-railing rather than being a natural born storyteller, he tried to throw me a loop, ordering me to talk off the cuff about, say, the worst show in the history of television. “E.R.!” I declared. “Why are they all over that lesbian with the crutch all the time instead of giving the hot Croatian guy something naked to do? I once married a guy from that part of the world, and believe me I put him to use. We met on a cruise ship, somewhere in the Caribbean...”
In the end, even the people who broke down and wept—grown men, some of them, with swaggering gaits and Ivy League law degrees—seemed to realize that Scary was nothing of the sort. Just before Christmas break, the class read him a group poem we'd written—and he was the one fighting back tears. I hugged him goodbye, the first and only time I’d ever gotten within five feet of the guy, and whispered in his ear how he’d always be in the room with me. “Let’s go do it,” he said.
This morning I had a very big meeting, a follow-up pitch on an adaptation I was asked to further flesh out. Though the meeting played out really well on its own, as the producer walked me out, a little voice somewhere inside told me to bring up Scary’s name and credit him with my pitching skills. “I love him, too!” she exclaimed. “He pulled me out of the mail room and made my career, way back when.”
Before I’d even exited the lot, my Very Supportive Manager called to say I’m now the front-runner of the three finalists headed back to the studio the day after tomorrow. Another thing they won’t tell you in film school is that as long as you keep dancing with the one that brung you, you’ll never have to face the room all alone.