Sloppy Julie's Bar and Grill

When I finish a screenplay, I send it off to a couple of old film school friends for notes. While I know in my head that there's no avoiding this step of the writing process, in my heart I am convinced they won't have any. I picture them writing back at once to report that this is my best sript to date, that it couldn't possibly be a first draft, that it is a heartbreaking work of straggering genius and I should stand my ground from here on in and never, ever allow anyone to change a word no matter how many points they were offering on the back end.

In the interim, I take another pass through the draft myself. Just a light proofread, I tell myself, a spellcheck, really, though I inevitably tweak a line here and there. Eventually I'll happen upon an entire passage that doesn't quite work; I'll combine two minor characters and pair down a bloated scene I ultimately come to view as one belonging in some other movie on some other screen in a totally different multi-plex on the other side of town!

No longer able to accept the existence of the earlier travesty I've released into the universe, I immediately e-mail my friends the perfected version, alerting them in the subject line to "DELETE NOW AND READ THIS ONE!!!" I figure if I use enough exclamation points they might actually do this. My failure to over-punctuate will surely result in their investing time in reading the now irrelevant original draft for the sole purpose of mocking me.

Usually, though, they write back and say no problem, since they hadn't gotten to it anyway, and did I mind if they took a few extra days. Their mom had unexpectdly popped into town, or their kid had come down with another ugly case of head lice, or they had an exciting new project of their own to pitch out of the blue.

I have no choice but to kill time by taking another pass of my own, during which I discover an even more disturbing host of gaping flaws. It turns out that the whole structure is off kilter, and that I've quite possibly delivered the whole ridiculous tale in the wrong genre!


This dance may repeat several more times until the friends carve out some time in their busy, itchy, mother-loving schedules to return a set of backhanded compliments. Oh, their notes might appear to be helpful and positive—the hero, though annoying, is an "original," the dialogue, though confusing, is classically "Julie"—lurking beneath the surface is a clear attack on my unfortunate choice of career. On the heels of nitpicky questions on "surplus characters," "unclear themes" and "fun but redundant" exchanges of dialogue, comes the inevitable introduction of the dreaded "tone problem." Underlying the final reminder that "this is just one person's opinion" lies the blunt suggestion that I trash the entire ill-conceived project before wasting another minute trying to pull it out of the crapper.

I blame the advent of word processing technology for my spectacular artistic failures.

If Ernest Hemingway had wanted to cut, paste and redistribute his lovingly crafted passages, he'd have had to get out an actual pair of scissors. It wouldn't have been a good idea for him to have such a sharp object within reach, given the fact that he was suicidal, quick to anger and drunk every day by noon. Visit the Hemingway House in Key West and the guides will proudly confirm his disciplined working and drinking schedule. He sat down to write every day at dawn, putting in six gut wrenching hours on the nose before retiring to a bar stool across the street at Sloppy Joe's.

Maybe that's what I need. A schedule, I mean, not a descructive alcoholic lifestyle that results in my early death. I need salty air, and a couple of swaying coconut palms keeping time with the sound of waves lapping the shoreline. I need an old Smith Corona with a bell-ringing return bar and keys sticky enough to wear out my hands by lunch. If only my life looked more like that of a literary giant—if I wore more hand-knotted fisherman's sweaters, and had snow white hair and whisky breath—my film school buddies wouldn't dare trifle with my greatness. And I would never again be plagued by the pesky need to write.

Julie, Fully Loaded

I have officially experienced my most surreal, life imitating art, Hollywood moment to date. Taking one of my many daily scheduled breaks from writing my latest spec script, I tuned in to CNN to watch my personal idol, Nancy Grace. Naturally her topic was the Lindsay Lohan Affair, not to be confused with the many previous Lindsay Lohan Episodes or Lindsay Lohan Scandals, none of which involved fleeing the scene of an accident, subsequent arrest at the hospital, and the alleged possession of cocaine. Apparently the poor dear's felonious odyssey began at the Hotel Roosevelt, which is just far away from my house for me to have the ideal view of its famous, seventy-five-year-old sign. Nancy's correspondent, Sibila Vargas, was reporting live via satellite from a place that looked strikingly familiar. I walked outside to discover her crew just down the block and her cameras pointed in the general direction of my house.

I don't write much about movie stars here, except the few I've met, most of whom have gone on to annoy me enough to inspire only thinly disguised identities. To my mind, this town doesn't belong to them at all, but to the rest of us. The people who truly run Hollywood do so on the sheer force of our undying desperation, fueled by those big dreams and persistent passions even protracted failure can't quite seem to tamp down. For people like me--who've enjoyed some measure of success only to find even sporadic employment is no guarantee of Hollywood immortality--talent is a curse. With it comes the indefatigable belief that moving on, rather than staying to put up a fight, is clearly the hollower of two flawed dreams.

All this makes me wonder what life here must be like for someone whose meteoric rise to the top began at the age of ten. My friend D. was a child star, appearing as Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years from the time she was in seventh grade. We met in film school, where D. was auditing screenwriting classes, and she went on to play the role of me in a staged reading of my semi-autobiographical thesis script. D. told me she hadn't been interested in acting until a friend of her mother's--the actress Lesley Ann Warren, who played Cinderella in the Rogers & Hammerstein movie in the early 60s--told her she had star quality. Though D. had a recurring role on The West Wing a few years back, her adult career has been less than remarkable. She remains, however, both suprisingly balanced and completely realistic. She writes and develops her own material, manages her money well, does stage work to hone her creative muscle and studies ballroom dancing for fun. Once in awhile I see her posing on some red carpet for the fashion page of the National Enquirer, which I'm not the least bit ashamed of telling her I read, adding that I always buy it along with that week's edition of The New Yorker.

I suppose the difference between D. and other child stars is superior parenting. D. is very close to her mother, who really looks more like a sister, as well as to her actual sister, who was also a child actress. The three of them sent me a Christmas card last year costumed as full-on elves, complete with North Pole scenery and prop reindeers. It's the kind of thing my family would do if we were all show-offy instead of only me.

Would I trade all my struggles for a shot at being an A-list actress by the age of twenty? You bet. Would I like to be rich and famous and skinny as a rail? Absolutely. Would I like to have my pick of all the best projects, to spend my days shopping on Robertson Boulevard, my afternoons poolside at Chateau Marmont and my nights sipping cocktails at Teddy's? Hell yes. What I wouldn't dream of trading in exchange is a mom and dad who love me with all their hearts and would be there if I fell, no matter how far away I was or how long it took to bring me home. I don't think Lindsay Lohan has any of that. I don't think she has anything.

Julie Talks Shop

I don't tend to dwell on industry issues here, since it's the only place in the world that actually is all about me so I don't have to waste energy feigning interest in things that might detract from that happy delusion. However, with all the talk about the looming writers' strike--the male posturing in the trades, the accusatory he said he said e-mails, the foreboding "Pattern of Demands" postmarked today that requires my urgent attention and support--I figured I'd offer a shout-out to the guys in charge. We don't care.

We want to care. We know we should care. But inasmuch as we can't imagine any of it ever applying to us, we can't seem to get invested in figuring out just what it is you're getting at. There are 13,000 WGA West members and 12,910 of us are really busy looking for our next jobs. As for the remaining ninety of you, I am dubious about your steadfast insistence that I receive "the first opportunity to write the interactive game" based on my feature films and original television series.

The thing is this hasn't come up lately--okay, ever--nor have "certain ancillary uses" of my comedy-variety materials, since only one in seventeen writing jobs in this particular area go to a girl in the first place. When's the last time you saw one of us standing up there in a tux behind Jon Stewart at the Emmys? If The Daily Show had seventeen girls on staff, it would be known as the biggest dykefest on the airwaves. Most perplexing of all is some obtuse demand for increased funding of showrunner training. This comprises the most exclusionary and highest paid of all branches of the guild, so it's unclear as to why these guys should receive more money to find creative new ways to shun me.

Don't get me wrong, boys, I'm very pro union, and you can rely on my vote to support whatever agenda you ask me to support. I will vote to strike and I will walk the picket line, as long as I get the free sunscreen and t-shirt. I mean, "Norma Rae!" and all that. How cute was Sally Field, fists raised, in her blue collar belly shirt and tight little Jordache jeans? No wonder Charlize Theron copied her hairdo when the movie was re-made as North Country, also formerly known as Erin Brockovich. My point being that there is strength in numbers, and I am damn happy to finally have defied my age and gender to be counted among the ranks of the "working" Hollywood writer.

I also know that without the union screenwriters would routinely be expected to clean the producer's pool when delivering a two hundred million dollar Jack Black vehicle we were hired to write for ten bucks an hour plus lunch and gas. For that, I am forever grateful to the Hollywood Ten and the rest of the McCarthy-era organizers who risked being branded commie pinkos in an effort to seek fair treatment for generations of writers to come. I just think we should all be focusing on things that are more important to moi.

My personal Pattern of Demands begins with certain improvements to the Health Plan. I think it should include free plastic surgery treatments for underemployed female writers approaching forty. There are only twelve members who meet this general description, so really, what could it cost? I think spa treatments should be covered at ninety percent after meeting the lowered annual deductible, along with manicures, pedicures and the removal, shaping, or conditioning of any and all unwanted hair. The Pension Plan should kick in at thirty-eight, but you should only have to admit to thirty-four in order to become fully vested. One-hour television episodes should include a new pair of shoes of the writer's choice, and the minimum basic agreement on original features should be expanded to require daily deliveries from California Pizza Kitchen. Re-writes, well, they shouldn't be allowed at all. In the event I ever want another writer's opinion on my work, I'll be sure to ask for it and get back to you.

That's about all I can think of for now, but I will not be ignored, and I will not go away. One person's voice is where it all starts, and mine will be raised until somebody sits up and takes note. Imagine my twelve-year-old wiener dogs' surprise when I lie in bed with them chanting--Norma Rae, Norma Rae, Norma Rae--until one or both roll over and fart to express unflinching support of my cause.

Back to School Julie

Eleven years ago, when I called my sister in L.A. to report that I was getting divorced, the nature of her response was unflinchingly celebratory. "A, yay," she said, "And B, it's time to come do this thing." The "thing" being screenwriting, a dream so palpable it no longer required a specific assignment of words. Neither did the ex-husband, come to think of it, to whom I'd long been referring as "the sucking black hole of need" rather than Aleksandar, the name his proud Communist mother had given him back in Dubrovnik.

Today Aleks wrote from Dubai, where he claims to be working as a body guard for some no-name Saudi prince, to report that he married a mother of three who's built like Shakira. My first thought was, wow, they must do a hell of a tummy tuck in Dubai. My second thought, and this one always crops up when you're dealing with Aleks, is the matter of how much of any of this--the job, the insta-family, the belly dancing wife--has even a kernel of truth to it. Though I've managed to scratch out a living at the art of spinning a cinematic tale, I'm not the only storyteller in the family, and Aleks' stories are only likely to get more colorful after a frequent night of binge drinking somewhere on the Arabian sub-continent.

It's funny how something can feel like a hilariously distant memory one day and a painfully recent one the next. My first trip to L.A. was a divorce gift from my sister, who signed me up for a two-day screenwriting seminar at UCLA Extension. My teacher, G., was a horror writer whose first produced script had been directed by some guy he met at a party by the name of Wes Craven. G. became my lifeline to all things Hollywood, and over the next few months he and I continued to work together on my debut script--a semi-biographical account of marrying a Croatian cruise ship maitre d' seventeen days after we met. Shortly after I moved out here for good, it was named one of nine Nicholl finalists. At the time I had no way of knowing how huge a coup this was, and thus made a quick recovery when the industry failed to see the big box office potential of a hilarious war-time comedy set in the waning days of former Yugoslavia.

Though G. and I fell out of touch when I went to film school, I recently signed up for one of the writing workshops he conducts out of his home. Though he, too, had divorced in the intervening years, I only learned of the demise of his marriage while coincidentally visiting his former wife, a Burbank dermatologist. There I lay with what I can only describe as a small blow torch poised on my face, very clearly empathetic to her side of a bitter tale of love gone wrong.

I didn't mention any of this the first night of G's class, because I was preoccupied with establishing dominion over the other writers. Anyone who's ever been in one of these groups will tell you this is just the way things are done. Though we are all at or approaching professional status, I can't say I related to the author of an extreme cult horror script about a guy who can't stop eating himself. A kid with prison tattoos read pages from a Chicano heist gone wrong film that struck me as disturbingly authentic. A commercially viable comedy, in my opinion, about a charlatan running a men's retreat, was offered up by a dead ringer for the actor Mark Ruffalo. In fact, I found it impossible to concentrate while simultaneously re-living all that nasty sex between him and little Meg Ryan from In The Cut. Finally, a former New Line executive who always knew he had his own screenplay somewhere inside, delivered a spoof of seventies cult movies with the misfortune of requiring the viewer to be both smart and stupid at the same time.

But we are there to work through all this together, me and the boys, and come what may, that much I can commit to seeing through to the bitter end. Funny how it's easier to do that with people you never loved.

Legally Blonder

Well, kids, she's done it. My old film school friend Blonde Ambition "C.", the one who looks like Elle Woods except for the tattoos snaking across her back in bold defiance of the real life sorority bitches likely to have misunderstood her at S.C., has sold her pilot to series. Since everything is about me, my first reaction was to decide just exactly where I fit in here. She's about to hire ten or so writers to sit around in the required uniform of baggy shorts paired with flannel shirts and duck bill caps to come up with the next thirteen episodes while eating Poquito Mas and making a freaking fortune.

I could ask her to read my work, but she's already done that aloud. Dating back to first year screenwriting class, I would always cast her in the lead during table reads of my pages. Not only did she have the right look for all my deceptively pretty and surprisingly acerbic heroines, but also an uncanny knack for delivering their lingering annoyance at being a smart girl in a stupid world. Perhaps our finest collaboration was her dutiful read of the eponymous heroine of my ill-advised debut script, Jihad Barbie, about a girl terrorist who changes her mind about suicide bombing the Orange Bowl after being named Orange Bowl Princess. If that courageous display of comedic genius didn't speak to my ability to write a kicky network sitcom for the average, flag-flying American family, I can't imagine what would.

Although my original focus was on television, where I earned my single produced credit before even going to film school, I've not given a whole lot of thought to the small screen since sitting proudly besides C. at graduation. But that's mostly because the only guy who's deigned to purchase my work since that fateful day happens to be an A-list movie star who I doubt watches much TV. I doubt E. even has one, not in his solar-powered canyon home, not in his Aspen ski lodge or Park Avenue penthouse. E. comes across as the type to spend a lot of time sitting around reading Sun Tzu in the original Mandarin.

I can't imagine why the studio recently reported they're putting our lighthearted, R-rated comedy in "turn-around." This is executive speak for, "So, yeah, we're not going to make this turd but damn if we'd give it back to you kids to play with." You know those hearbreaking stories you hear on the news during sweeps periods about evil foster parents who lock the kids in the basement for years with a pee bottle, occasionally tossing them stale crusts of bread? That's how I picture turnaround. They don't want the love child Mr. Movie Star and me bore out of wedlock, but they'll be damned if one of the other studios are going to get their hands on it any time soon. It could happen. This is Hollywood, after all, and anything can. Even my ancient Korean manicurist has a screenplay people are saying very good things about, but my pedicurist is having some third act problems. As for the torture artist who waxes my eyebrows, she's got a little horror thriller going and recently signed with CAA.

So back to C. and me. My Very Supportive Manager says she'd have to push pretty hard for the network to even acknowledge my existence at this stage of the game, let alone staff me on C's hot new show. So what if it's about a misunderstood smart girl living in a stupid world?

C. could intervene on my behalf, but judging from her last e-mail, she's been drunk for the last three days since the big announcement at network "upfronts" in New York. Agents and other assorted power mongers, no doubt, are busily showering her with logo items from Tiffany's and other pricey trinkets meant to inspire some pretty darn high level favor trading. Me, all I've got to hold onto right now is the unlikely belief that Jihad Barbie has held a very special place in C.'s heart all these years. Or maybe, just maybe, she's become hopelessly addicted to this kooky little blog of mine. Now that would be the Hollywood version.

The Brothers McWilson

I went back to film school the other night for a screening of Luke Wilson's
self-serving vanity projectbrilliant little indie, The Wendell Baker Story. My first thought was, wow, so this is all it takes to get something made. I only need Owen Wilson to be my brother, Will Ferrell to be my friend and my other brother whom nobody's ever heard of to direct the thing while assuring me that my bloated 200-page script is shootable just as it is. I have to admit it had some good laughs throughout. But it all fell a tad short of its loftier aspirations to be one of those seventies comedies about good old boys who go to prison and like it, since those don't work without Burt Reynolds in his prime. Oh, and Eva Mendes as the love interest was no young Sally Fields. Matter of fact, I'd have cast Sally Fields nowadays in the role over some boney spokesmodel whose idea of acting is putting on a super pretty dress and looking off into the distance.

My second thought was, it's tough going back to film school, for any reason. Only three years out, and the only face in the crowd I vaguely recognized was the department chair, B.B., the one-time producer who knows everybody who's anybody and isn't shy about telling you so. In fact, she'd discovered the Wilson boys back when they were a couple of Texas yokels with a crazy short called Bottle Rocket. When she said "the boys" had lived with her while making the Wes Anderson feature, I wondered where she got the uncanny knack for differentiating your garden variety film geek from a trio of film geeks who would go on to become a Very Freaking Hip Art House Director and two Adorably Mopheaded A-list Movie Stars.

On the way out, I did run into a guy I'd known in the screenwriting program. It's always tough to know what to say when this happens, since if you bring up your big deal studio assignment you sound like you're bragging and if you don't you sound like you're a has been who never was. So I just hugged him and told him I thought the movie sucked. In lieu of nepotism, favor trading and name dropping, mocking the failures of others is a grand Hollywood tradition that seems to work just fine.

Overweight Sensation

I figured things would go one of three ways for the people I met in film school. They would make it and become famous and possibly legendary; they would not make it and pursue something humiliating, such as dentistry; or they would teach. While I viewed that first option as the one true path to happiness, coming up on the third anniversary of my graduation, I've discovered an alternate route to nirvana among my old film school pals. While I judge the kind of day I'm having by whether or not My Very Supportive Manager called—and if so, how good or bad or annoying her news is—they're discovering how to be both happy and successful by not allowing one to depend on the other. They are carving not only their own careers, but also their own life plans, flying off in bold new directions without waiting for permission for take-off from the shadowy figures at Hollywood mission control.

All in the span of a year, Amy J. turned thirty, got a great job in development, got pregnant and got married to a British director unable to work in the U.S. Though the baby was cute and the much younger husband even cuter, I couldn't understand why she'd choose to stretch herself so thin at such a critical time in her career. Then I saw Richard's debut film, an English caper called Fakers, which began a stateside theatrical run last week. As I sat watching it opening night at the Beverly Center, any lingering question about Amy's rush to make a life with this brilliant little fellow vanished. At the tender age of twenty-three, he had directed a warm, funny, engaging look inside the colorful underworld of European art forgery. All I have to show for my early twenties is a long dead relationship with a pediatric resident who turned out to be gay and a blossoming devotion to Sarah Lee. While my early passions heralded a long struggle with excess body fat, Richard's launched what I'm convinced will be a huge career.

Meanwhile my friend Emeka, who'd been an undergrad when I was a grad T.A., is starring in a play called Wounded at The Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica. It was collaboratively written by the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, whose membership is heavy on fellow grads of the theater department. Set in the Fisher House rehabilitation home at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C., the main point of re-entry for wounded service personnel, the story was culled from gut-wrenching true accounts.

Given my preference for irreverent comedy and general disdain for all things heavy handed, I didn't expect to even buy it, let alone walk away haunted for life. Yes, the story is thought provoking, the performances brilliantly rendered. What struck an even deeper chord with me, though, is the way these kids are carving big, brilliant careers for themsleves out of a tiny black box theater set with a single card table and a couple of folding chairs. Emeka told me that Tom Hanks has been showing up a lot with his wife, Rita Wilson, and that the penultimate Hollywood power couple recently secured him a suitably big Hollywood talent agent. I couldn't help thinking of another tiny little play they happened upon and teamed up to bring to the screen as My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This is Hollywood, folks, and big things happen here. They really, really do.

As for my own answer to thinking outside the box, you're looking at it. The blog begets a book, begetting a sitcom, begetting a long series of stints on Letterman during which time I supplant Amy Sedaris as Dave's favorite wacky girl guest. In theory, anyway. For today, a nice big dream, a nice little Sarah Lee pound cake and a nice little afternoon nap is pretty much all I got. The good news is, I couldn't afford to indulge any one of those vices three years ago today. Though I am finally working in the business, in all honesty I'd have to call myself more of an overweight sensation than an overnight suceess story.