Juliefest 2005

Though my Google search under the term “film festival” yielded no less than sixty-two million, nine hundred thousands hits, there are really only two kinds—those nobody goes to and those where everyone who’s anyone is there, darling, yet you’re still not welcome. Funny thing about this second category is that even though swarms of people you’ve never heard of show up from places you’ve never heard of wearing bizarre new Finnish designers you only wish you’d never heard of, you can’t get a room. Which doesn’t matter anyway, since you also can’t get a screening ticket, a dinner reservation or an after-party invite.

I get enough rejection at home. The consummate industry outsider, my idea of festival fun is the year-end film school brand, where the student filmmakers happily greet even the straggling homeless guy toting his bag of raw bacon. All you have to be is semi-conscious to watch the fifty thousand dollar shorts financed by the sale of their parents’ second car that was only cluttering the garage anyway and you qualify to sample the wine and cheese platters. A Friend With A Real Job once joined me wearing a suit. Mistaken for an important agent, he was appeased like a Roman god with extra cubes of Gouda. When word got out that he was only some Sherman Oaks CPA sniffing around the free snacks he ran off to the parking lot in fear of a public stoning.

Who needs the amateurs, anyway, what with so many grown-up festivals where I can stand half-frozen in a line winding around the block only to discover it leads to the back door of the Park City Soup Kitchen. And here I’d called the organizers months in advance asking how I could get in to see an actual movie among the six hundred and forty they were planning to premiere. “And you are?” some snotty little college intern inquired.

“What’s it to you?”

“Another movie lover,” she sniffed, pulling the words out of her mouth as distastefully as a strand of hair.

“God help me, yes.”

She paused, lowering her voice. “You could always sign up to volunteer. Park cars, wave flashlights, tear tickets. Why do you think I keep showing up here, for the catered burritos? They don’t even give us salsa!”

Since I can do plenty of work nobody wants to pay me for here in town, I’m figuring I should set my international film festival sites a little lower. My research revealed that many of the lesser events sometimes manage to attract a star or two among the welcome public by way of their very specific themes. For example, at the Tibetan Screwball Comedy Fest, Richard Gere and Sharon Stone might well appear to suck up to the Dalai Lama. Goldie Hawn, Kate Hudson and little Ryder would surely agree to chair the judging committee for a conference on the Ethical Screen Treatment of Geese, Ducks and Other Endangered Water Fowl.

Although I’m not particularly interested in films about oneness with God or abused poultry, you can’t always count on connecting with the selections made by the more important festivals, either. The powerhouses earned their stripes not necessarily because of what they screen but where. What no-talent, bony-assed celebutante doesn’t want to go to Cannes either way? Nantucket, Maui, Sundance, Aspen, Venice–if you like to sun, ski and make out with aspiring starlets in gondolas after chowing down their share of the complimentary pizza and chocolate, these are the gatherings of choice regardless of whether or not you were ever a movie buff to begin with.

As for the competitions anchoring these events, they’re not meant to congratulate the winning filmmaker, per se, but rather the cigar-chomping idiot from Hamburg who ponied up the Euro-bucks to finance the indecipherable, vaguely unsettling little flick despite its obvious lack of box office appeal. Remember, unless you happen to be a legend like Woody Allen, Michael Douglas, Clint Eastwood or one of their recent wives, never expect to be feted, recognized or even admitted. Unless of course you're among the entourage of a Bankable Young Star who clearly needs your brilliant new script and false compliments along with that overdue shower and shave.

End of the day, the way I look at it is screening, schmeening. My new film festival motto is go for the picked-over goodie bag somebody fabulous left in the lobby, stay for the chance ladies’ room encounter with a Drug-Addled A-Lister begging you for a tampon and some Chiclets. One day maybe I’ll get a chance to make a movie and show it to my peers around the world, but for now I’ll have to settle for the occasional bathroom stall brush with greatness.

Feel Good Story of the Year

As God as my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over I'll never be hungry again, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill, as God as my witness I'll never be hungry again.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Scarlett O’Hara. So many memorable lines punctuate her journey that you never have to wonder where or who she is. "Fiddle dee dee,” if I remember right, are her first on-screen words. “War, war, war. This war talk is spoiling the fun at every party this spring. I'm so bored I could scream.”

Just in case we’re wondering whether she’s undergone a life change by intermission, there’s that little monologue in the carrot patch. As any Film School Loser can tell you, the midpoint is where our heroine must seize control of her destiny. She then has the rest of the second act to come within a hair’s breath of making good on that vow, only to lose it all in an unforeseen series of events known as “The Big Gloom.” In Gone With The Wind, little Bonnie Blue’s fatal pony accident marks the beginning of the end for Rhett and Scarlett. By the time the credits roll, he no longer gives a damn; she'll always have Tara.

Even if you’re structuring an epic, you do want to be careful not to lay things on too thick at your lowpoint. For example, you wouldn't want the horse to trample Rhett to death when he’s holding his kid’s limp, lifeless body. Scarlett can't pick up a shotgun to take aim at the errant beast only to accidentally take out Mammy. There’s a certain suffering-to-payoff ratio you have to negotiate or you’ll end up writing an early Jamie Lee Curtis slasher movie as interpreted by Quentin Tarantino.

Structurally speaking, this fall has been my personal big gloom. I lost my teaching job, missed out on a studio writing assignment, learned I may be plagued with lifelong heart problems and got stuck indefinitely doing the most humiliating temp job imaginable. As if I weren’t already in overkill, this weekend my landlord served me with an eviction notice at my little Hollywood bungalow, the one stroke of luck I’ve had since I got here. After nine years, he’s trying to worm his way through a legal loophole to break rent control. While my Type A Lawyer Sister says he hasn’t got a prayer, either way I’m facing a long, drawn out lawsuit. My estranged brother “Weirdman” subsequently hunted me down to make very certain I understand that I’ve wasted my life—comparing my talent for storytelling to his knack at lighting his own farts.

A film school professor once told me that the characters give you the story, rather than vice versa—that the whole Civil War happened merely to serve Scarlett. Though I didn’t exactly know what he meant at the time, I came to understand that without having helped amputate that screaming soldier’s leg, she'd have been forever stuck back at the Wilkes barbecue bitching about that indifferent loser Ashley.

No suffering, no heroism, no story to tell, no me to tell it. This is a comedy for chrissake, so the most important thing here is that after a good, thought-provoking cry everybody goes home feeling personally uplifted. Maybe tomorrow I’ll stand up in the lunchroom waving a carrot in the air, swearing to survive all this if it kills me. If only I were the sort of girl who looks hot while gesturing with vegetables wearing dirt on her face. Oh, fiddle dee dee.

No Sex and This City

My Very Supportive Manager set up a meeting for me with a prominent book packager. Though I had no idea what that is, I rarely do when dispatched to these rendezvous. I suppose I could ask in advance, but I find it lots more fun to assemble the big picture once I get there. That's when I look around at the movie posters on the guy’s wall and pretend I actually saw the thing while he pretends he actually made it.

This particular fellow had a stack of teenage romance novels fanned out on his coffee table, so either he was some kind of sicko or a close personal friend of Judy Blume. It turns out he specializes in the lucrative tween genre and was behind a big summer hit about four teenage girls and one pair of pants. To ensure its popularity well in advance, the screenwriter had based her script upon a book hatched years earlier by committee in a New York writers’ room. Book packaging, I thus learned, begins with an idea proven to be marketable long before hiring the novelist and selling off the screen rights. While the publisher had very much enjoyed reading my Hilarious Funeral Comedy, he wondered if I had any good stories about little girls up my sleeve.

I told him that while I in fact used to be one, I no longer find the youngsters all that fascinating—preparing to wrap up yet another Big Hollywood Meeting by knocking back my rightful Evian and requesting my rightful parking validation. When he asked if I had a prose sample, I mentioned this blog. "It's one girl’s personal journey into the bleak Hollywood abyss,” was my not so compelling pitch. Suddenly, though, the guy was all ears, offering astonishing details about a blogger who’d landed a top agent and sealed an enormous book and three-picture deal valued at upwards of seven figures. “Of course it’s basically porn,” he added, leaning forward and lowering his voice as though offering me an illegal stock tip. “Erotic confessional is the next generation of chick lit.”

While there may be all kinds of smut going on in this city, it’s nothing Julie Goes To Hollywood gets herself tangled up with. You regular readers know very well that things have even cooled off between me and my Imaginary Boyfriend since he up and moved in with a real girl. Now on top of my ridiculous temp job, pointless studio meetings and pathetic attempts to complete yet another charming spec script I’m supposed to reel in some hot stud to mine for X-rated blog content? I just can’t picture myself as Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Faye Dunaway in Barfly. Sharon Stone in just about anything.

Trolling my general waters for something, anything, juicy enough to borrow and confess to, I decide to probe my co-workers—to whom I generally say nothing except good morning, good night and I need to go to the bathroom now. “So what’d you do last night?” I casually ask the twenty-something Alterna Girl seated beside me. I’m thinking she’s my best bet, since she dyes her close-cropped hair Annie Lennox white and studs her bulletin board with charcoal drawings of people screaming. “I went to the M----- party at L--,” she tells me, the mute crone wearing the blank look. “M----- is a magazine and L-- is a Big Hollywood Club. I even saw Prince there.” I lower my voice and ask if she happened to sleep with him. “I didn’t even look at him,” she says. “He doesn’t like people doing that.”

My luck is no better when I inquire into the health of the husband of a Cool Black Chick with scattered pictures of children on her desk. "Honey, I haven't got time for all that, I've got kids," she reports. "Talking about keeping some man around the house. Girl, please."

I'm thinking the Uptight Little Office Manager might well be a dirty, dirty girl beneath that prim "my hands are so cold" façade of hers. "I go to school, full time," is her non-sequitur of a response when I ask if she does much dating. "That plus I also work out, okay?"

I skip right over the woman who just delivered a three-pound baby at six months along, since she's busy pumping her breast milk for afternoon delivery to the neo-natal unit at Cedars-Sinai.

"I only have a dog," says my one last hope, a Sweet Señorita from Mexico City, who points to a revolving mosaic of Bassett Hound poses on her photo screensaver. "He's going as Sherlock Holmes for Halloween. Ay, que cute."

Maybe I'll try Editorial tomorrow, where a couple of girls sporting Lisa Loeb glasses have got to be closet sluts. Come to think of it, Advertising might be a better bet, since my dim recollection is that your typical sexual encounter requires a certain sales savvy. As for me, I guess another thing they won't tell you in film school is when a girl spends the whole day hoping to find a few scant moments to pour her heart onto the page, there's only so much left of it to spread around town come nightfall.

Malice in Wonderland

Newspaper gossip columnist is one of the few jobs in Hollywood where you’re allowed to be ugly. In the early days of celebrity hounding, one bad word from either Louella Parsons or her arch rival Hedda Hopper, the original queens of mean, meant the movie stars didn’t work. Ever again, in the famous case of Ingrid Bergman after daring to become impregnated by the married Italian director who fathered Isabella Rosselini. Both women's lifelong quest to hunt, chase and publicly bitch slap the wayward glitterati must certainly have stemmed from some unfulfilled desire around what they themselves might have been. I was surprised to learn that Hopper—who would always receive a piece of fine jewelry on her plate like some burnt offering during mealtime at Hearst Castle—had formerly been a no-name character actress. Her most memorable screen role, ironically, was playing herself at the height of her own celebrity in Sunset Boulevard.

Parsons, meanwhile—who ultimately established herself as the town’s social and moral arbiter—was a failed screenwriter. Before her rise to absolute power at the hand of a poison pen, she'd managed to script a couple of forgettable B-list movies—along with one of the original how-to books on screenwriting.  Fittingly, she entitled her autobiography The Gay Illiterate, a nickname given by her editor—perhaps also serving as a backhanded confession that she didn’t think much of her own writing.

While the Legendary Hollywood Trade Paper where I'm begrudgingly working as an office temp was once known for tossing around a salacious blind item or two, nowadays it tends to focus on the business part of the show, things like box office grosses and film production charts. The scant few columnists—none of whom I'd describe as “larger than life” by any sense stretch of the imagination—cover such straightforward drivel as "Tech Talk" and "Legal Briefings." Editorials occasionally weigh in on topics as warmed over as last night’s meatloaf—such as the power of the Internet to re-shape the future of global movie distribution. Yawn.

On the other hand, a veritable gaggle of squawking gossips swarms the lunchroom we share with one of the industry's more colorful rags. Most days I'll read screenplays, trying to melt into the wallpaper and enjoy my Lean Cuisine in relative obscurity. More often I'm subjected to the endless monologues of the one who seems to be their queen, holding court around the table like something out of Alice in Wonderland. I gather her job is to interview celebrities, then report back to the office to deliver the goods in exchange for extra Chinese take-out. "Are you going to eat that eggroll?" she'll say to an Unassuming Copy Editor dutifully absorbing the latest star-studded diatribe.

"I was saving it for later," Unassuming will say. "But you go ahead."

Round and round the name dropping goes—the Eleven-Year-Old Actress who "really needs to grow up;" the Adorable Ex-Junkie whose sobriety seems "just a little too rehearsed." Though I'm not one to name names, let's just say by the end of the lunch hour I expected William Randolph Hearst to come out and drop a bracelet on her plate.

What struck me most about the little bombshells shared among this group were that they were droppped so loudly right there in front of me. I guess I really have managed to cease to exist at all here in Hollywood, to become completely inconsequential, another fly on another wall. The irony is that given my own background as a journalist, part of me understands the Queen and her bees all too well. What's not to like about a fawning audience all too willing to fork over their adulation and dim sum? I guess another thing they won't tell you in film school is that if you don't have the talent, strength and resolve to make your own movies, writing about those who do may well be the next best thing.

The Handy Dandy Pocket Guide to Who's Who in Hollywood

Back in Umatilla, my Deeply Concerned Mother , an endearingly frugal little woman, carries a card in her wallet with a graph illustrating precisely how much to tip at either fifteen or twenty percent. I’m not sure if there’s an allowance for service quality—good, bad or “wish you bitches hadn’t come in so near closing when I’d really rather focus on combining my ketchup bottles.”

Even at the fanciest L.A. eatery, overall hospitality leans toward the surly, since there is no waitress, bartender, busboy, hostess or cocktail server here in town without a higher calling. Be it Aspiring Soap Star, Emerging Rock Star or Former High Class Hooker with a few too many miles of road on her tires, this individual’s attitude toward serving you ranges somewhere between mildly annoyed and downright confrontational. There’s a Hamburger Hamlet up on Sunset and Doheny, for example, where the exasperated greeter wants anyone sniffing after a greasy red vinyl banquette to understand she was once married to Miles Davis—proof positive, in my view, that you really can’t pay too much for a decent divorce lawyer. Ask this sort of gal to give you the soup of the day and you risk wearing a nice hot cup of it home.

It occurs to me that for those who aren’t intimately familiar with the Hollywood superstructure, there’s a great likelihood of not being exactly sure who it is you’re talking to during a given interaction here. One out-of-town reader recently commented that when I throw around a bit of industry jargon such as “Showrunner,” she has no idea what I mean. A newly arrived East Coast Transplant shares that he sat through an entire meeting with one before learning she was the series creator and executive producer—who'd sat holding his fate in her hands all along. When I refer to “The Famous Scary Superagent,” “The Young Hungry Producer Pal,” or everyone’s favorite, “The Smug Overpaid Sitcom Weenie,” I’m confident that at least some of you will not only appreciate the archetype, but might also deduce the individual’s precise identity.

For the rest of my worldwide fan base I’ve prepared a cheat sheet you’ll want to keep with you in order to negotiate your future dealings with the highly complex, at once self-loathing, self-entitled and self-involved aliens who’ve chosen to people La-La Land.

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Screenwriter. Should you ever come across a Parking Valet, Security Guard or Nightblub Bouncer claiming to have written a screenplay "people are saying really good things about," try not to laugh too hard. Just look straight ahead as though he were the homeless guy outside 7-11 begging for beer or candy. Either that or go on and (have your assistant) read the thing. It will probably suck, but then the bigger a stinking pile of crap it is, the better its chances of becoming a box office smash starring Vin Diesel.

Producer. This is the Fast-Talking Slickster with no discernable talent of his own who offers to read the homeless guy's smudged, tattered pages standing right there in front of 7-11. But only after negotiating ancillary rights, a lifetime management contract and a co-writer credit in exchange for his time and a pack of Camels.

Director. Make sure anyone claiming to be a director isn't referring to direction of the Saturday afternoon traffic choking the Beverly Center. Also known as "helmers," "lensers" and "substitute grammar school teachers," most won't get beyond the utterly humorless, vaguely unsettling, fifty-thousand dollar short they made in film school after convincing their bereft parents to sell off those pesky cars that were cluttering the garage anyway. Should this individual be a woman, you'll know right off she's a lying sack of inferior hormones.

Development Executive. Truthfully, I have no idea what these folks do all day. I'd say ruin scripts and serve bottle water, but they have Unpaid Interns, also known as Wharton M.B.A.s, to perform these services along with the sexual favors. "Developing" a screenplay for which you've just forked over one point eight mil at auction may only mean ensuring it's inconsequential enough to compel your average eleven-year-old Ritalin junkie to sit through it long enough to bootleg a copy destined for Southeast Asia.

Agent. Again, not clear on this one, but it seems to have something to do with lunch, Mr. Chow's, a telephone headset, colorful lies, rumors, threats and innuendo. Oh, and poaching artists from other agencies while refusing to represent the unrepresented ones who don't technically exist to begin with. Think David Spade on those increasingly grating "no" commercials.

Manager. See above. Only it's easier for them to steal your material and teach you to like it since they have more free time and no pesky state license to hold them back.

Entertainment Lawyer. The cream of the representation team, forced into some vague ethical code of conduct under the welcome threat of disbarment.

Movie Star. Their personal tastes dictate what gets made, so it's unfortunate that most never conquered middle school since they hated the old lady and only hate her more now. You'll spot the dirtiest, hungriest and most unkempt of the A-List not outside 7-11, but at The Ivy, where BenJen I pretended to eat food then pretended to break up, and Lindsay Lohan likes to have all her good car accidents. Remember, these are the last seven smokers in California. The men are short and secretly balding while the girls have bad skin—the truth behind why they're always beating those fat, sweaty foreigners called "Photographers."

Julie and the Celebrity Psychic

So far the only good thing about taking subscription orders at a
Legendary Hollywood Trade Paper is sometimes interesting people call. Yesterday I heard from Naomi Eszterhas, Joe's wife. I vaguely remembered some big scandal regarding their union—perhaps involving Sharon Stone, if memory serves—but I didn't get into the details with my caller. Nor did we discuss the heyday of the spec market or the record-breaking script sale of Basic Instinct—the stuff of legend in film school circles—since all the missus really wanted was her annual renewal charged to the old man's AmEx.

Then today a gentleman identifying himself as the “Original Psychic To The Stars” called letting me know he was back in town and ready to do his show again. I asked if that were radio or television so I'd know which discount to apply. "Shame on you, young lady," he clucked. "Why, I knew Tichi Wilkerson.”

"Who's that?"

Tichi,” he repeated, as if reminding me of a mutual acquaintance over gin and tonics at the late Swifty Lazar’s celebrated Black and White Ball. “Billy’s wife.” Now him I knew. Billy Wilkerson was the controversial restaurateur and nightclub owner—both a known associate of Bugsy Siegel and vocal supporter of Joseph McCarthy—who founded the town’s first daily trade rag in 1930. Doing the math, I concluded my caller was about a hundred and fifty years old. Either that or completely insane. I decided to go with the latter and get this over with so I could return to my on-line game of Battle of the Blogs.

“Sir, were you interested in the daily or the weekly?”

“Surely you recognize my voice, darling,” he said brightly. “I read for Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball. Have you any idea how many times I did Merv Griffin?  I considered inquiring whether that had been the show or the person. “Down, Cindy,” he admonished some high-pitched toy breed yapping in the background.

“Did you want us to bill you for this?” I shouted over the din.

“You’re going through a lot,” he sighed into the phone after a long, silent pause. “Aren’t you, sweetheart?” Suddenly we were talking about me, instantly raising both the old guy’s credibility and his import. I looked around, lowering my voice so as not to alert the eavesdropping cows swarming this ridiculous bullpen like something out of those TV commercials for California cheese. “Tell me more,” I whispered.

“Well, there’s a younger brother out there. And an older sister who’s as different from you as night and day.” My Type A Sister indeed has a job and a husband, a pool, a house, a pool house and a 401K. Me, I got nothing. “Ah, but I’m seeing some very big changes for you,” he said. “Yes, you’re considering a major move.”

Okay, this was getting eerie. It was just yesterday, right here, that I entertained the idea of leaving Hollywood to give up screenwriting for good—the toughest decision I’ll ever have to make because the obvious choice just feels so cosmically wrong. Though I still wasn’t sure this strange little man was completely on the level, tears welled up in my eyes just in case. “What exactly am I supposed to do?”

“You’ll have to burn a candle—just a regular, ordinary dinner candle. Make it yellow for the love that’s just out of reach.” That one I wasn’t so sure about. Certainly there’s been a chill between my Imaginary Boyfriend and me ever since he started dating a real girl. Come to think of it, he moved her in last night—had the nerve to pull up right in front of me to empty the back of her smart little SUV of moving boxes. I may be deluded but does he think I’m blind?  Then I remembered the e-mail I received this morning, out of the blue, from my Croatian Ex-Husband, who’s working security on a luxury cruise liner sailing the Mediterranean. He signed it, as always, “XO, Love you 4Ever.”

I asked my phone-in psychic for the precise source of his information. “I mean, is there somebody who actually talks to you?”

Mae West,” he replied. Well, of course—I should have known Mae West was onto me all along. He went on to clarify that the flamboyant screen legend—who lived just down the street from my little Hollywood bungalow in the towering, ornate Ravenswood apartment building she’s still said to haunt—had taught him the art of reading voices when he was just six years old. I told him that just by coincidence I had paraphrased her famous line, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” to headline yesterday’s entry in my on-line journal.

“There are no coincidences, dear,” he said before hanging up. “Only believe, all things are possible if you only believe.” Later this afternoon he sent a fax confirming his order, addressed to my attention. Funny thing is, I’d never once told him my name.

A hard man is good to find.
I go for two kinds of men. The kind with muscles,
and the kind without.

So many men, so little time.
Why don't you come on up and see me sometime, when I've got nothing on but the radio.
I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.
Marriage is a fine institution, but I'm not ready for an institution.
Give a man a free hand and he'll run it all over you.
I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.
When choosing between two evils, I always like to try
the one I've never tried before.

Curse of the Bitchy Leprechaun

In film school I knew a Legendary Story Structure Professor who’s the Obi-Wan Kenobi of screenwriting, beloved not only by current students, but also by the many Million Dollar Screenwriters he’s taught over the last forty years. He has a theory that you can structure the story of your own life into three logical acts, just as you would a script. To find your way out of a rough patch, just figure out what act you’re in.

Unfortunately, my personal story arc is so convoluted I’m no longer even sure whether I’m still the protagonist. For all I know, I could be the antagonist, living under some ancient family curse ever since one of my Irish ancestors dug up the wrong potato patch, ousting some bitchy leprechaun from the comfort of his rock. For generations thereafter, all aspiring Big Hollywood Screenwriters in the family would be doomed not only to fail spectacularly, but also to come within a hair’s breath of success, time and again.

Since "Julie Goes To Umatilla" doesn’t sound like a very exciting storyline, I’m left with no choice but to go back and try to fix the one I started here in Hollywood, beat by beat. Then and only then will I be released of my bleak fate and ready to accept stardom, glamour and happiness as my one true destiny by the time my credits roll.

ACT I: Suffering a lifelong case of middle child syndrome, Little Julie first seeks the spotlight as a raindrop in the school play, where she remembers a good many of the lines to B.J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” while costumed in pink tights and Reynolds Wrap. Her reliance on verbal skills surfaces by the time she completes high school having avoided any classes in math, science or gym. She goes to college, dabbles in acting and improv comedy, and ultimately pursues a globetrotting glamour career as a successful travel writer.

INCITING INCIDENT: She meets and marries a Croatian Cruise Ship Maitre D’ who ultimately fails to support her secret desire to run away to Hollywood, since doing so would surely decrease his ability to shop at the Gap, drink vodka in the morning and remain unemployed the rest of the day. Cutting him loose like a big Slavic albatross, our heroine heads west with a two hundred-pound Neopolitan Mastiff named Bunny, where she’s received by many old friends and relatives.

ACT II: The friends and relatives either move away or die, as does the chronically ill dog. Julie soon learns that, though she was one of ten finalists whittled down from thousands of applicants to a major screenwriting competition, she didn’t win. What remains of her travel writing career goes irreparably south when she lands a spot in a demanding studio television apprentice program, where an inadvertent insult perceived by one of the sluttier executives ensures that our heroine is passed over for a staff writing job.

MIDPOINT: Julie once again seizes control of her destiny, gaining admittance to the M.F.A. Screenwriting Program of one very Big Deal Film School.

Reveling in campus life, our heroine grows her craft within the warm embrace of all but a few No Talent Bitches among the otherwise warm and wonderful student body. Nurtured by Doting Faculty and Famous Industry Mentors, she writes the Hilarious Funeral Comedy that ultimately attracts both her Very Supportive Manager and her High-Powered Entertainment Lawyer. She then embarks on a year-long Evian Tour of every lot in town, drinking pricey bottled water while entertaining many colorful reasons why her movie will not ever be made, not no way, not know how.

LOW POINT: When her part-time teaching position is eliminated, she’s cast out into the dreaded world of office temping. On assignment at a Legendary Hollywood Trade Magazine, she’s sent directly to the basement, where Some Wormy Janitor Guy offers instruction in the operation of an industrial shredder. Sixteen boxes of water-damaged documents are to be fed into the jaws of the machine one page at a time—yielding multiple blocks of allergen-rich waste paper, each roughly the size of a bail of hay. All goes well until a flying sliver lodges beneath her lower lid, and Julie is sent home to ponder the tattered shreds of her own life.

Which brings us to Act III, when our heroine...Okay, this is where I keep getting stuck. Any idiot who’s ever seen a movie, let alone written one, knows I’m supposed to reach deep down inside myself and somehow manage to pull off the impossible. Luke Skywalker would line up the damn little radar button right along now, destroying the Death Star for good. I’m pretty sure my mission is to write another brilliant screenplay in my free time, but the truth is I’m not sure I’ve got a new one in me right now.

I tried to consult my Obi-Wan for advice, only to discover he’d had a heart attack followed by emergency surgery. My first reaction, since everything is about me, was this must be part of my Irish curse. Then I remembered that Luke also lost his mentor, but heard his voice loud and clear at the all-important dramatic climax. I feel confident that should I ever get that far, my teacher will be right there whispering just the right words in my ear. The trouble is, while you learn all kinds of things in film school about cinematically resolving your own life story, one thing they can’t give you is the details.

How Not to Be a Film Geek

I had to make a choice between two film schools, both generally considered to rank among “The Big Five.” One famous M.F.A. Screenwriting Program is set within a large university, which also tends to attract a panoply of diverse students who are not only book smart, but also street smart enough to convince their parents that sunny L.A. is a better place to study most any subject than, say, overcast Berkeley.

The other operates as a film conservatory, peering down from a Hollywood hilltop on the former campus of a Catholic girl’s school. Students are discouraged from holding outside jobs while in residence so they may live, breathe, eat and sleep filmmaking exclusively. This means endless philosophical discussions on the cinema, swinging tonally between the droning and dispassionate diatribe to the angry staccato outburst. Hallway chatter shall cover every topic from the many breakthrough ways in which Wes Anderson manages to objectify women and call it progressive, to why federal law should consider film colorization to be felonious assault. I took one look at the place and realized that to escape even as far as Taco Bell, I would have to get in my car alone and drive for several miles, then eat my chalupa in the car soothed by the bland, wordless rhythms of “Yanni at the Acropolis.”

Needless to say, I chose the university—where I proceeded to succumb wholeheartedly to the cloistered, clannish, us-versus-them film geekery I’d been so determined to avoid. Over the next three years, I spent most of my days inside one building, talking to five people about three things.

Evening cocktail and pizza parties excluded even the strange and exotic creatures of the Theater Department—impromptu tap dancers and booming Shakesepearean orators—inhabiting the opposite side of the courtyard. These folks were only welcome among our ranks when they came over to audition for our shorts, at which point they’d be required to speak our language and talk only about our side of the camera. We shunned attendees of public screenings from conversation during intermission cookies and coffee, inspiring them to leave before the ensuing director’s lecture peppered with hilarious inside jokes about “gaffer’s tape” and “flatbed editors.”

Only afterwards, when cast out into the lonely, isolating world of the Aspiring Hollywood Screenwriter, did I realize how many advantages of college life I’d missed out on. Although I could return any time for various events among the general public—such as a popular concert series and a prominent book fair—not until I’m a Big Deal Alumna endowing a scholarship or dedicating a library will I feel truly at home re-upping my membership in the privileged university community. I do, however, have a couple of tips to share about how things would go if only I had it to do all over again.


10. Sign up for “Sleep and Relaxation Class” at the Wellness Center. Enjoy free massage, acupuncture, acupressure and flu shots. Accept any and all pharmaceuticals offered, including the Christmas break Xanax administered to any student expressing an unusual fear of flying.

9. Enjoy complimentary Student Health Club membership by actually going there. Sign up for Yoga, Belly Dancing and Rock Climbing classes, plus weekend sailing instruction at the Marina given by strapping young seniors named Justin, Jason and Jordan. Further indulge taste for young eye candy in Water Aerobics class scheduled right after practice session of Men’s Swim Team. Briefly fake drowning incident.

8. Go to a football game and pretend to get it. Better yet, check out the basketball team, which actually wins from time to time and wears sweaty tank tops and revealing short-shorts. Drink plenty of beer and eat greasy nachos drenched in mysterious cheese-like sauce.

7. Attend plays, lectures and events, where registered students get preferred seating for less than the price of a movie ticket and a box of Red Vines at the Arclight.

6. Visit the Sunday Night Salsa Dance at the Student Center. Hook up with Argentinian Ethnomusicology doctoral candidate named Bruno who insists you close your eyes and feel the rhythm of the Pampas as he glides you around the dance floor.

5. Check out a fraternity party during Rush Week. Claim to be somebody’s worldly stewardess aunt just in from Bangkok who's been formerly schooled in the art of love, speaks little English and pours a mean tumbler of sake

4. Learn Kendo, the ancient school of Japanese swordfighting, among nerd group meeting Saturdays on the quad, alternately taking turns to be first in line for rumored Star Wars sequel.

3. Spend time in Law, Medical and Business School libraries wearing cheap make-up and plunging necklines. Who needs another Film School Loser around when it's time to settle down and buy real estate?

2. Assuage middle class guilt by joining radical Chicano group boycotting on-campus Panda Express for using non-union cabbage in its egg rolls.  

1. Date the undergrads. That’s what they’re there for.

Baby, You're a Star!

Back when I was a Big Deal Travel Writer, I reluctantly disembarked a perfectly lovely luxury cruise ship to take an overland tour from Naples to Monte Carlo, stopping in Rome and Florence. My traveling companion, the Actress Friend Who Gave Up, had not seen much of Italy during a post-college visit wherein she hooked up with a wealthy Venetian businessman on the plane over and never again left his villa for the duration of the trip. Me, I’d been there and done it all before—the Duomo, Michelangelo’s David, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Leaning Tower of Pisa—and would have preferred staying on the ship insisting that the two primary thrusts of my magazine cover story were chocolate desserts and onboard spa services.

The minute I saw the snub-nosed Italian motor coach I considered swimming back to the retreating vessel. I am by no means a tall person—in fact I often lie to stretch out my height while diminishing my age and weight. The unyielding seats—which I’m still convinced were made of beef jerky rather than “buttery Tuscan leather,” according to the grandiose press kit—were set so closely together that only a shriveled Neopolitan grandmother could escape severe kneecap displacement during a ride through the countryside.

Cramped into the back end of the torturous mini-bus, I eyeballed four roomy seats upfront—high-backed recliners with La-Z-Boy footrests—configured into what I can only describe as a First Class cabin. Unfortunately, a self-entitled Midwestern clan—Mom, Dad, Young Master Satan and Little Jon Benet—had claimed them from the outset like a family stake in the Klondike Gold Rush. Day after day, the Actress and I would wake up early, skip our showers, forsake breakfast and make a mad dash for the bus, only to discover the Stepfords of Akron sprawled out like residents of an upscale gated community with their toys, maps and puzzles—along with a magnetized Scrabble board and an Igloo cooler full of fruit roll-ups and juice boxes. As the day droned on, one of the evil twins would invariably whine, “Mommy, the mean lady with no husband or children is kicking the back of my seat.”

One morning we spinsters actually beat this suburban freak show to the bus and were greeted instead by “Reserved” signs scrawled in crayon and grape jelly on the coveted glamour seats. We exchanged a look, balled up the artwork and took our rightful places up front. “Shame on you girls,” the father sneered, appearing as if on cue to board his narrow-eyed brood. “We’re traveling with children.”

Even if I did grasp the whole desire to procreate, I’ll never understand why it is everybody wants to make that my problem. I mean, single girls tend to weigh ourselves down with lots of new shoes, but we don’t run around demanding preferential parking at the shopping mall like The Stroller People. I don’t claim to live a particularly balanced life, and freely admit that in a sense my work has become my family and my screenplays my children. I spend my days doting on them, feeding and nurturing my babies to maturity, hoping against hope they’ll some day stand on their own to make their mark in the world.

The other night I went to dinner with my brother, who moved away years ago to Micronesia and settled down to make a family I’ve never met. While I talked mostly about my scripts, he had a lot of fascinating things to say about his kids. One is learning to make it through the night without peeing his pants while the other may be sprouting a new tooth. I shared the news that Ashton Kutcher might want to play a character I'd based on him in my new movie. He said he'd read it, but didn't care for the ending. It’s a cheap rip-off of Risky Business, he flatly informed me, where Joe Pantoliano empties the house of its contents and sells it back piece by piece to Tom Cruise. “You should think about changing it to something more clever and original,” said he.

“Your kid can’t even get up to use the john!” I wanted to scream. “The other one gums her food!”

He stopped me short, however, with the captivating news that the baby has started to look like me. Suddenly I wanted to know more. Much more.

“She also has your personality,” he added. “Runs around in those big pink sunglasses you sent, mugging for the camera.” At this point I absolutely adored this child who once existed to me only in pixilated digital photos and the occasional QuickTime movie. Another star in the family, rejecting hometown life to pursue a career in runway modeling, ballet and opera, showing off the long legs, perfect pitch and native sense of rhythm her auntie never had! I mentally cleared my walk-in closet for her big move to Hollywood, painting the walls pink and stenciling them with tutus and toe shoes and big pink sunglasses.

My brother thinks he can hold her back—she’s a girl, after all, and his wife has her own traditions—but then they don’t share our immutable passion to perform. I know it takes a village and all that, but I gave it all up to go downtown not because I suddenly wanted to, but because I had to all along. Regardless of the direction my own life should take, there's some comfort in the notion, however remote, that this kid out there with my blood running through her might some day become a star. Maybe one day I’ll even take her to Europe, where I’ll use her to get the good seats—though my niece and I will have the good taste and breeding to leave the Igloo at home.

Career Fair

Ever since I started temping I've been thinking a lot about more permanent career options in the event the whole Big Deal Hollywood Screenwriter thing should fall through altogether. My Deeply Concerned Mother is convinced that landing myself a dream job should be a snap, given my big education, numerous skills and talents, and also how cute I am. Me, I can't exactly picture showing up at some San Fernando Valley employment agency trying to sell myself to another Warren R. Schmidt type watching the clock with sweat stains under his arms.

Schmidt: So what are your strengths and weaknesses?
Me: Well, I'm very good at making up stories and engendering conflict.
Schmidt: Let's try to keep this real, dear.
Me: Alright, so the dramatic tension tends to fall apart in my third act.
Schmidt: (as if to a deaf-mute) Are you proficient in Microsoft Office?
Me: No, but I have a B.A. in English and Theater and an M.F.A. in Film and Television.
Schmidt: Perfect. I've got a Fish Counter opening at Ralph's.
Me: Would you happen to keep a Lou Grant flask of whisky in your bottom drawer?
Schmidt: There's always Hometown Buffet.
Me: But I had so very many hopes and dreams, none of them involving glazed carrots.
Schmidt: They wouldn't want you near the food. Ex-cons and film school grads work the dirty dish room in raincoats and hip waders.
Me: Is there a retirement package?
Schmidt: Oh, you'll be dead long before you have to worry about that.
Me: Promise?
I decided to skip this unfortunate exchange and take one of the so-called "free" career tests on the Internet—only to discover that for just $39.99 I could order a set of six audio tapes guaranteed to help me find myself at home, in the car or just about anywhere out of earshot of my current soul-sucking place of employ! Then I came across a site that only required my name and home town—Madonna Ciccone, Detroit—in exchange for an endless barrage of philosophical questions. Do I prefer ideas over money, family and prestige? Do I work best alone or among a group? Do I tend to follow my head or my heart? Would I rather be a loving person or a millionaire? Ape or chimp? Boxers or briefs? Finally, after offering me penile enlargement, discounted dental work and surgical assistant training at the DeVry Institute, the merchant-sponsored site laser targeted toward your typical pigeon-toed trailer dweller gave up the following:

Madonna, your heart's desire is...Design and the Arts!

You have a number of attributes that make you an excellent candidate for a design or artistic-related career. You understand how important it is to express your feelings and do what you love, so it's likely you're already in a design-related field or have created a way to make your non-design-related job more artistic and expressive. If you're currently stuck in a job that does not allow you to throw your heart into your work, it's likely you're an unhappy soul and are not living your life's purpose. Until you get yourself back on track, the life you dream of may never arrive.
Pretty much any idiot sitting around Googling the search term "What To Do When Your Life Sucks" is unlikely to be a "happy soul." Once it occurred to me without even clicking my ruby slippers three times that I've known all along who I am, it wasn't much trouble to come up with a shortlist, whatever my future may hold.


5. L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy. Okay, so I'd have trouble on the psychological exam, since I'm angry and skittish, and also the physical test, since I'm lazy and fat—but it sure would be fun to walk around wearing the hat and the silver star, not to mention the big gun on my hip. I'd spend my days pulling over every last development executive who dared dismiss my work and my nights saving the hookers from the likes of Charlie Sheen.

4.Stay-At-Home Mom. Not only would I stay, I would never leave, not even during an outlying canyon fire threatening to destroy my view. Nor would I actually bear the children, but I'd happily hire people to watch, feed and bathe them while eating bon bons on my Pilates reformer and quietly despising my Smug Overpaid Sitcom Weenie of a husband.

3. Prison Matron. I'd be like Queen Latifa in Chicago, dealing privileges in dollar bills and cigarettes to anyone willing to call me "Mama," sing the occasional bluesy duet and iron my cavernous brassieres.

2. Crown Princess. They all bitch, but only because most every bony little Royal Highness looks so darn hungry. I'd rule Samoa, where I'd be revered for my heft, wear gauzy muu-muus and have a great catch phrase like,"Let them eat poi."

1. New York Times Film Critic. I believe this one speaks for itself.

Big Hollywood Screenwriter's List of Things to Do Today

1. Wake up early and take matching wiener dogs to Laurel Canyon Dog Park to befriend powerful television executive walking adorably aggressive Teacup Poodle named Nielsen.

2. Stop at Farmer’s Market for imported non-fat yogurt from Greek island of Mykonos and pint of assorted seasonal berries.

3. Run on treadmill while listening to mix of Abba, Shakira, and soundtrack from Fame.

4. Shower, moisturize and exfoliate with new tub of lavender scrub from Trader Joe’s. Dress in Levi's 501 button down jeans from high school that for some unknown reason fit again.

5. Read the trades to learn that old film school chum has inked multi-million dollar series deal at HBO.

6. Pen charming congratulatory note to dear old pal, with gentle reminder of verbal agreement to share any and all future successes sealed one drunken Karaoke Night at the Westwood Brewery.

7. Work out final scene of in-demand high concept thriller now ready for record sale at spec auction. Type the words “Fade Out.”

8. Phone Very Supportive Manager, who sends young, tan and built “runner” to pick it up—but not before hitting “Macho Man” on his boom box and stripping down to his sequined thong.

9. Go to The Ivy at the Shore and enjoy celebratory bottle of Veuve Cliquot, courtesy of formerly infertile starlet cured by world famous gynecologist boyfriend who's about to pop the question.

10. Accept his barefoot marriage proposal delivered in French and accompanied by moonlight string quartet on the beach, while simultaneously fielding million-dollar script offers on cell phone. Die happy and complete.

That's on a good day, of course. Here's the list of things to do on a bad day.

1. Wake up late and scratch ass on front porch in jammies and padded slippers, letting Wieners roll around on the lawn in the neighbor dog’s favorite pee spot after eating each other's poop.

2. Make it to Jack-In-The-Box thirty seconds too late to order Bacon, Egg and Sausage Ciabatta Breakfast Sandwiches with two-for-one coupon.

3. Return home empty-handed and squeeze into the last clean nightie, which is too tight around the underarms. Microwave Angel Hair Pasta & Shrimp Lean Cuisine while watching Howie Mandel guest host on Regis & Kelly.

4. Tune into four-hour block of smiling moron Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals on the Food Network. Accidentally nap through both Judge Judy and Nancy Grace.

5. Read trades to learn that no talent film school arch nemesis with perky boobs and severe haircut landed three-picture deal at Paramount with Brad Pitt and George Clooney producing.

6. E-mail anonymous death threat, then think better of it since they can track these things and desperately try to unsend it.

7. Mull over fabulous new spec script idea, only to discard it when ET's Mary Hart announces that Keira Knightley has just committed to the exact same movie to be written and directed by Ridley Scott.

8. Let machine pick up call from Very Supportive Manager who’s “been a little worried about you and just wanted to call and say you’re the greatest, and it will happen just as soon as that new spec is done. Anyway, is it?”

9. Go to Fatburger for Double King Burger With Cheese, Fat Fries and Vanilla Shake, pay with last nine dollars of available credit on Visa.

10. Clean up mysterious Wiener dog vomit found among bedsheets, pop the last Xanax, drift off in front of TV before cable company cuts it off for non-payment, and dream of becoming Letterman’s new stalker. Die bitter and alone.