Only a Paper Moon

The waitresses at Canter’s make me nervous. They’re all like a hundred years old and substantially overweight with swollen ankles. They tire as easily as your grandma going up and down the steps from the main restaurant to the groovy Kibbitz Room, where punk rock bands have been playing round the clock since the late sixties, judging from the d├ęcor. The original establishment dates back to 1924, and I'd wager so do many of these gals. I’ll look up from my Corned Beef Brooklyn Avenue going, hey, lady, take a breather—you know, after you run get me another half-sour and a re-fill on the cherry Coke. Watching the poor woman hobble off, short of breath and perspiring around the upper lip, I suddenly see my own future.

Everybody thinks they’ll be young forever, and everybody is wrong. In Hollywood, we’re also convinced we’ve got something very special or we wouldn’t have killed ourselves saving up for the bus fare to get here. I bet some of these waitress broads are former Rockettes, forced to sling the slaw on Fairfax and Beverly since the day some smooth-talking hustler who looked like Ryan O’Neal in Paper Moon promised to make them Big Hollywood Starlets. The dumb lug gets himself shot standing watch for Bugsy Siegel, and she ends up broke and alone, adding old to the mix somewhere along the way. Nowadays she’s one lousy tip away from pulling an extra overnight shift just trying to finance her cholesterol medication for another month.

I was relieved when My Very Supportive Manager set up a meeting for me this morning not at the dispiriting Canter’s—perfumed by that air of hopelessness along with the baking Challah and today’s chicken soup—but instead at Jerry’s Famous Deli. They can’t make a decent cheesecake to save their lives—but at least the young, clumsy waitresses serve up a few illusions along with the day old bagel chips.

I hate this type of meeting, which feels like a blind date rather than a golden ticket onto a studio lot, where I can spend an afternoon truly believing my career is going somewhere. Every once in awhile, Supportive feels compelled to throw me like a bone to Some Struggling Producer Buddy she’s convinced might land himself a Big Studio Deal some time soon. He loved my script, he says—just not enough to put his own ass on the line and deliver it around town like some terrific used car he’s discovered with new tires and very low mileage. No, what he’s after in exchange for the Swiss cheese omelet and side of buttered rye toast he insists on paying for is my Next Big Idea.

The irony is that Supportive trained me very early on never, ever to share these with anyone. Say something vague, she instructs me, like you’re working on a "character piece," or a "buddy comedy" or a "popcorn thriller." Never use more than two words. While you must work very hard constructing a tight, visceral, market savvy, poster-friendly log line, don’t even let the Middle Eastern busboy overhear you repeating it. I always find this concept amusing, that it’s all about the idea rather than its execution. Like writers are just monkeys filling prescriptions in some Big Studio Laboratory churning out on-screen pharmaceuticals.

"We can afford to be choosy later," Supportive will reassure me. She did once put forth that she’d be willing to work with me even if I decided to limit myself only to the tiny sliver of the marketplace devoted to cinematic excellence. “It is your career,” she’ll say in this way she has of feigning neutrality when she actually has an agenda just like everyone else.

I know very well I can’t afford to be picky when I had to park in a twenty-minute meter in front of Jerry’s, since it’s only a quarter instead of the two dollars they have the nerve to charge in the lot. Still, I do have to wonder if it bothers the guy writing the Poseiden Adventure re-make that he didn’t even have an idea to call his own, not even a germ of one to withhold from the eavesdropping foreign waitstaff at Jerry’s. Probably not. That guy probably just took the omelet and ran. Hell, he probably got a glamorous meal at The Ivy in exchange for his complacency—roast duck drizzled with sour cherry pesto. He got his parking validated and went home high on false compliments and Pinot Grigio.

Producer Boy was actually very nice. He drank bottled Dasani while I ate food of all things. I offered to re-acquaint him with my Million Dollar Screenwriter friend and former Big Deal Film School professor who lives just around the corner from Jerry's. He's the one who wrote a big box office smash—whose concept was pretty original, come to think of it—about two guys who changed faces. Afterward, he was one of like twelve writers on the Tomb Raider sequel, and though he has to spend a lot of time apologizing for that whorish indiscretion, he did get to build himself a sandy-bottomed wave pool off the big payday.

He once told me he never bothers to walk the short distance to Jerry's. He likes the way Canter’s smells, half bakery, half deli, one side for each nostril. Even Michael Mann goes to Canter’s, I heard the Big Deal Director say in a master class. He’ll sit there writing all day long, basking in all that authenticity. I really hope I won't have to wait on any of these guys some day at Canter's. But another thing they won't tell you in film school is that you will get old, at which point all bets are off.

CUE MUSIC: The scratched static sound of a needle on an old forty-five dropped into a Depression-era jukebox.
"It's only a paper moon, rising over a cardboard sun. But it wouldn't be make believe, if you believed in me."


  1. Roger Corman used to sell some of his movies based on a poster for a screenplay not yet written. He's not alone. I've heard of producers selling a movie based on the title. I'm probably going to be doing something similar this November at the Amercian Film Market trying to pimp my own projects. Such is this life I guess.

    As to the producer who won't put his ass on the line for you... One of these days you'll come around.

  2. Rent "The New Suit" if you haven't seen it. It's about a guy who sells a million dollar screenplay that doesn't exist, written by a hot new writer who's also fictitious. Even when everyone finds out, nobody cares. Dan Hedaya totally skewers Robert Evans. I also love Albert Brooks in "The Muse," which I only saw recently. There's this scene where he tromps across the Universal lot and the tour bus people are making fun of him that actually happened to me. It's like what you said in another post about "The Player." I guess truth is stranger than fiction most of the time.