Who To Be After The Dream Dies

My friend Hannah, who is around my age, just started a job making three hundred grand a year as a cardiologist. The thing that really interests me here, other than the three hundred grand, is that ten years ago Hannah was working in the mail room at CAA. Already past her prime even then, at least for an aspiring Hollywood power agent, she too had a flawed life plan. We both bet it all on a city that isn't real, filled with people who don't get it and wouldn't know what to do with it if they did.

It is possible to slink off into the night after your dream finally dies -- but I've never been sure where those people go or what they do when they get there. I've always suspected small town diner waitressing was involved, or possibly the sale of flowers and those strange little leaflets at the airport.

What I love most about Hannah's story is not that she got out, but how she marched off the stage like a freaking rock star, pumping a fist in the air. Or pumping the life back into some fat cat on a gurney, as it were, suddenly begging her for a little attention.

Then there's Chloe, Hannah's younger sister. Her Hollywood journey began when she left a job as a death penalty-qualified Seattle attorrney to become a celebrity gossip columnist. She now takes private ballet lessons from a straight guy named Jacques and just got a swag bag from the people behind the Liberace movie that included a rhinestone-encrusted bottle of Dom Perignon. I wonder if she ever misses putting on a plucky smile to deliver appeals briefs and fresh toothbrushes to Richard Ramirez. Probably not.

Given the natural fit between crime and drama, sometimes I think about cashing in my chips and becoming a prosecutor. It be might nice to gas an actual serial killer once in awhile instead of trying to mete out justice on paper. Either that or I'll do the diner waitress or airport flower and pamphlet thing. Really, you never know where you might end up when you've had enough of this place, but I hope it's on the right side of the gurney.

The First Time I Got Paid For It

Unless you are the Oscar-winner who got kicked off American Idol, the fresh-faced unknown chosen to star opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, or the personal assistant to Matthew Broderick who wrote Little Miss Sunshine, there is no such thing as a meteoric rise to the top. In Hollywood, success comes in dribs and drabs, in a series of little firsts meant to drag and drop your pecking order as though rearranging some great Netflix queue in the sky.

There's the first time someone besides your mother admires your work.

The first time someone besides your mother returns a call to share this opinion.

The first time you get a studio drive-on to the Warner lot. (I shall cherish the memory of mine as though it were my "first time"with one of the actual Warner brothers).

The first time your drive-on is actually there when you reach the gilded gates of Paramount Pictures, so you don't have to pull over and hang your head in shame while they examine your undercarriage for plastic explosives.

The first time you get to valet at Sony rather than park across the street in an underground lot beside the lady who makes the gravy in the commissary.

The first time you get to meet with the actual star rather than his or her D-Girl, who almost invariably bears a striking physical resemblance to the original, only without the veneers, voice training and Swiss skin care regimen.

The first time a famous actor nails a line you wrote.

The first time you get paid to write something, anything.

The first time you unknowingly drop your drawstring skirt on the Disney lot while leaving a meeting, then exit the New Animation Building in the shadow of the giant Sorcerer's Hat exposing your crushed velvet thong to every passing geek with a colored pencil.

See, my first time wasn't writing a script for Mr. Movie Star, as popular legend has it. It was years ago, before I ever went to film school, when a kindly drunken Irishman my brother-in-law met on St. Patty's Day at Tom Bergen's gave me a chance to pitch his Sunday morning cartoon. Writing children's animation certainly wouldn't have been my first choice, since I never cared much for children or animation back then. I'd never seen Shrek, for example. I couldn't understand why there weren't any people in it. If you-re going to re-make The Princess Bride, I say pony up for Mandy Patinkin in the flesh.
On the plus side, this particular cartoon was voiced by a number of comedy legends, including Dabney Coleman, John Astin, Tim Curry, Allyce Beaseley and Glenne Headley. I pitched an episode where the kids went away to summer camp and the grown-ups took over the school. "Picture Lord of the Flies, only with grown-ups," I explained.

"What about the kids?" the producer asked. He was sober now, and not nearly as much fun as he'd been while powering back the Guinness and pretending to have a brogue.

"Haven't we had enough of the kids?" I asked?

He wondered if I had anything else. I didn't. But damn if I was going to tell him that, since I was new in town and still believed in my God-given right to highly overpaid employment. Given my background in comedy improvisation, I knew it was possible to toss off an idea he was certain to like by pausing to let him supply the last part of my sentences. "What if the school principal got fired, and had to..."

"Take a job at the Middle School?"

"Exactly," I said. "Only the guy who replaces him is..."

"Even meaner than the original?"

"You took the words right out of my mouth," I told him. "Anyway, what they have to do is..."

"Find a way to get rid of him and bring the old guy back between six commercials for sugary breakfast cereal!"

"So you like my idea?" I asked.

 He told me to go off and write it, getting up to shake my hand. I'm not sure if this is were I lost my skirt, or if it happened farther down the hall once I was out of his eye line.  I felt a light breeze kissing my nether regions, and found my skirt untied around my ankles. Since we hadn't talked money, I hoped he hadn't viewed the whole performance as a pathetic ploy to earn extra points on the "back end."

Though I'll never know for sure as to why, I was very handsomely paid indeed for what would become my first produced credit. That is, after I was teamed up with some guy on staff who re-wrote it beyond all recognition gave it a little polish.

People think we're a lawless bunch, but Hollywood has all kinds of rules. One is never wear granny panties to a meeting anywhere in the vicinity of 500 Buena Vista. Another is, regardless of personal preference, go ahead and build yourself a great career in family entertainment should that opportunity arise after so much wishing upon so very many stars.

Yes, another thing they won't tell you in film school is whatever happens, wherever it happens and no matter how many people point and laugh, you just pick up your skirt and keep right on walking.

Note: Disney neglected to issue the series in DVD and removed YouTube uploads on licensing grounds. Although it aired again and again in syndication snce this piece was first published in April, 2006, I never grabbed a copy.

How Many Screenwriters Does It Take
to Change a Lightbulb?

When my new editor e-mailed me that he's had quite a lot of trouble finding "solid" writers in L.A. I had quite a lot of trouble not spit taking Skinny Vanilla Latte all over my new fablet. I did shoot him a reflexive LOL, then wondered if I should have gotten so collegial with him right off. He might have been after a lamer if more reassuring response, such as, "I'm on it, sir." Something exhibiting the slightest command of appropriate workplace parlance between two people of letters who've never formally met.

"Seriously?" I added instead. "You should prolly know we're not a solid bunch out here as a rule."

Prolly? For some reason I'm now opting to address the guy like he's another Echo Park loser instant messaging me on Match.com about how he'll prolly sell a public sculpture at some point.

I guess I was hoping for a laugh as opposed to the whole palpable silence thing, but now I'm thinking the rest of the world just isn't in on the standard comedic setup here. If the one about the Hollywood screenwriter is an inside joke in an insider town, how could our esteemed colleagues elsewhere know we local writers are always the butt of it?

"An actor is a schmuck," Jack Warner once barked. "A screenwriter is a schmuck with an Underwood."

Then there's the one about the starlet so stupid she slept with the screenwriter. Da da boom. I'll be here all week, folks!

As for how many screenwriters it takes to change a lightbulb, why change it at all when it's a masterpiece just as it is?! This typically follows an inquiry from the development executive as to whether it really has to be a lightbulb, rather than, say, an egg salad sandwich. We're all so predictable in this town; no wonder we haven't come up with a new plot in the last eighty years.

Anyway, I am off to reclaim my dignity as a formerly noted wordsmith. I have a freelance assignment for a travel magazine -- an actual, honest-to-god printed one on high gloss paper. Apparently, they still have those, and not all of them feature a cover shot of that fat, bikini-clad porn star pregnant with some rapper's bastard. Though there might be a script idea there, come to think of it, your classic scags-to-riches story.

Yeah, hands off the lightbulb, bitches.

Story is Character, Boys and Squirrels

I've been having a lot of trouble with aggressive squirrels here at the barn. I guess that's one of the trappings of finally having a place to work that could be even remotely described as "writerly." Though both the Disney and Warner Brothers backlots flank the Equestrian District where I live, by L.A. standards this is the country. Snorting horses clip-clopping down my back alley keep rhythm with the babble of a garden fountain I figured out how to plumb myself in perhaps my most elaborate procrastination coup to date. Birds chirp, trees rustle, leaves fall.

Wouldn't you just know that the nation of Sciuridae, from the Latin, would invade from the hills -- yakking it up in two distinct and highly sophisticated languages, Kuk and Quaa, according to my research. I won't get into which is used around the exchange of various nuts and which is used around the exchange of squirrelly fluids, but it all comes down to one appetite or the other. I've never understood how these beady-eyed rats spun their fluffier tails into a successful public relations campaign. People, these are flea-ridden, disease carrying, bilingual rodents, with the temerity to nest in piles of scavenged dryer lint within spitting distance of your head! Where is the outrage?

This got me thinking about the relationship between story and character. If you Google "sexy squirrel," by the way, actress Zoey Deschanel comes up with alarming frequency. (Please don't ask how I know this until you've tried it yourself). The point being that given certain attributes in the hands of a deft storyteller, anyone or anything becomes a love interest, a villain, a hero, a mother, a child of the corn. A student of mine once made a short film called "Boy Meets Squirrel" about a geek who befriends a loyal squirrel on campus, only to have to choose between the critter and the girl who thinks the whole thing is super weird.

Then there's my next door neighbor, a fine painter of some note, who once gave me a signed ornament depicting an impossible love story between a squirrel and a dancing bunny worth more on eBay than I paid for a new bed at Macy's. (Don't ask how I know this, either, but two can squirrel away for the winter). Anyway, none of this occurred to me until I went screaming to his door after leaving a bag of garbage overnight in the courtyard. I awoke to the chattering of Kuk and Quaa as a ragtag invasion re-purposed its contents as a residential subdivision for up-and-coming neighborhood vermin.

I wasn't sure what I expected the artist to do when confronting the squirrel leader I call One-Eye (for a vile physical quirk that speaks for itself) burying unpopped kernels of microwave popcorn in my potted lemon tree. Had my neighbor picked up a shovel and beaten them all to death without ever dropping his girlfriend's Maltese, we would have been firmly in the realm of Steven King. I'd have had to change my locks and all, but still. He's from Dallas, I think, and was very Texan about it, not saying much as he pounded on my fence until the last of them shook the Skippy jar from its snout and scurried off.

Despite having sponsored the attack, I wanted this poetic soul to know I wasn't some kind of cretin; that I understood his nuanced use of anthropomorphism to depict the bitter alienation of the human spirit, of love, and loss and yearning for connection. "Damn that Orrville Redenbacher!" I said instead. "All these kernels were supposed to pop." We cleared away the scattered apple cores and peanut shells and went back to our houses to work.

Julie Takes Her Show on the Road

In Hollywood it's important to learn how to break the rules and cheat the system, since there are no rules and the system is working against you -- especially in the event you're a newcomer who's been hanging around for fifteen or twenty years.

That's how much time has passed since I fled a perfectly exotic life as a successful travel writer to pursue a perfectly ridiculous life as a low level screenwriter.

Time and its passing, along with the seemingly desirable options we let slip away, are ideas we professional dreamers don't spend a lot of time fleshing out for studio development. The poetic explanation is we inhabit the realm of infinite fantasy, of impractical magic and endless possibility. In purely psychiatric terms, we end up blabbing incoherently in blogs, bars and celebrity rehabs about how we got robbed. Either way, surviving Hollywood requires a clinical diagnosis of moderate to severe dumbassery.

Yesterday I got an assignment from the travel magazine publisher who gave me my break as a writer just out of college. This was back in the late eighties, when the happy births of most of my current competitors were yet to be considered by material girls in purple lace bras just getting into the groove.

It was a different day, when you could land the job of a lifetime without ever pursuing it. Like a fresh-off-the-farm flight attendant raring to see, do and snap it all through the lens of an instant camera, I traveled first class wholly unaware there was another way to go.

Home base was Miami in the years after Castro had released his prisoners and mental patients onto our streets. Fancier sorts in pastel suits set up shop in nice neighborhoods like mine to run the suddenly pedestrian cocaine trade.

My own troubles didn't start until Hollywood showed up. Miami Vice, shot on location, was the number one show on television. Burt Reynolds, then married to Lonnie Anderson, opened a dinner theater just up the coast. Dance majors with unusually good heads on their shoulders popped in to claim an easy union card and an easier way of life than treading the boards in New York. Even Madison Avenue discovered us, with cheap deals offered up by tourist officials eager to show off our newly revamped good looks and charm.

"The Rules Are Different Here," a controversial tourist slogan promised -- and this turned out to be true. A world away from Hollywood, these gates were wide open and anybody with an interesting look, a cleaned up arrest record and a valid working visa was welcome inside the fold.

Running the travel section of a local newspaper by day, by night I joined a comedy improvisation theater company in Coconut Grove. In very short order, the whole cast made our network television debuts opposite Sonny Crockett, worked with Burt and Lonnie both and starred in innumerable, well-paying television commercials.

Is it any wonder that trotting off to see the world, further burdened by the task of writing about it, became such an inconvenience?

If only we screenwriters could plot out our own stories as carefully as those we make up. After slipping in through the side door of this closed club, how was I to know my time inside would often feel so unwelcoming?  Having pretty well grown up before managing to scratch out a second career in entertainment, by Hollywood standards I was dead before I got here.

You may look for the next big movie star vehicle I manage to sell to be a road picture inspired by events that haven't happened yet. Yes, it takes a special brand of delusion to deliver the goods in a dream factory so well equipped to break yours. Yet here I am, headed back to the place I started, firmly convinced I'll return with a salable sequel. How's that for the advanced stages of chronic dumbassery?

What To Do When You Can't Get Arrested

Yesterday I had lunch with three lawyer friends, though this was only by happenstance, since I'm not under indictment or anything. "It ain't illegal, blogging without a license," she said, slipping into her best gun moll. "Leastwise not last time I checked, copper."

One of the high-powered legal minds at the table sized up the cool character I've resuscitated here. "We're still behind the dream, but we're starting to worry about you now," he said. I'm not sure who "we" are but part of me was glad to hear there's more than one of you out there.

The other part paused to consider my becoming a cause for concern to an officer of the court. I guess in a world where the rules are made clear with a firm bang of the gavel, my Hollywood life must read like a senseless crime spree. The rival who needs to go down, the agent somebody ought to take out of the game. The tip-offs, the drive-ons, the package deals that blew up.

If I were a lawyer, I'd become death row qualified, which I only learned recently is a thing. I would be Marcia Clark, had things have gone differently, only way more kick-ass. I'd have won the big case before cashing in with a series of gritty novels in which I am the thinly veiled (and thinner and veiled) heroine.

The corporate types talking tortes at the table don't get my addiction to the real life case all over the airwaves lately concerning that small-town waitress who slashed her boyfriend's throat after a nooner gone bad. That's when I hit the whole lot of louts with the lowdown on film noir. It's the bulldog Bogie of Maricopa County, see, opposite the busty black widow playing victim in the hot seat. I might have a secret crush on the dead guy done wrong; and a soft spot for the hard-boiled detective with the sweet-spoken voice.

If only my characters felt that conflicted and raw. While the long romance between Hollywood and criminal justice is a natural, live trial watching makes my own stories feel so flimsy. The book that didn't sell, the call that never came, the backbiting former film students meeting my recent work with the grim silence of a candlight vigil. Really, where are the stakes anymore? What happened to the handcuffs? Shut up and get a job, sister, before you get popped in the kisser.

As I slinked out of the joint, I asked the big lugs to "like" a gal now and again -- be a peach and toss her a "follow." I clicked off in my high heels while anybody but me picked up the check. Things have yet to become fatale, but you can still count on Julie to assume the role of the femme.

Juile Goes Down With The Ship

If great stories were driven by the themes at their hearts, Scarlett O'Hara would have wolfed down that rotten carrot because she's a feisty Southern Belle living in a world gone with the wind. Actually, she's just hungry. Matter of fact, she's starving to death. Precisely at the story's midpoint, a new plan is hatched. Whether she has to lie, steal, cheat or kill, our heroine will stop at nothing to achieve it between now and the end of the story.

Like it or not, in movies as in life, these basic wants propel our stories forward above some nobler theme. "Ashley," Scarlett sighs over and over, even as her face gets dirtier, along with her dealings. Seriously, what kind of woman marries her sister's husband? I don't even know why my sister married her husband. Something about taxes? Anyway, none of that matters once you learn to write from desire. If we know what our characters want, no matter how hollow the goal or flawed the plan, the audience will want it for them.

Though Scarlett's pivot point is one of movie history's most memorable, a seismic event at the center of any well-structured story will spin the action on its ear. A bad marriage, a good divorce, a road trip West -- in my case all three. Think about what happens after the iceberg hits the Titanic. Rose no longer wants to throw herself overboard and die but stay afloat and live. It's pretty easy to figure out which horse to back there.

But getting back to me, since that's how it works here, I continue to struggle with the specifics of my big Hollywood finish. While my real life story limps along, selling a big screenplay wasn't the game changing event I'd hoped for. Life back at Tara is a bore, always was. My Ashley was a  doofus from the get-go, and my Rhett suffered a break with reality and went off to a foreign prison.

Firmly past the mid-point of my landmark journey, I've stopped wanting for much of anything, except maybe a Smartphone. I want a TV that works, not a big one, mind you. In fact, I'd prefer something modest, since it has to live inside my bedroom closet on a shoe shelf over the clothes. I want a regular paycheck of modest proportions, a house that I own outright, a car that smells like leather inside, and a dog that doesn't smell at all. I want a stock portfolio and a 401K. I guess you could say I've changed.

No longer concerned with the destination, I'm focusing on the journey. I'm busily breaking the bones of a spec script, chatting up clients online, replying to headhunters posting intriguing offers back on the inside instead of here on the fringes.

Maybe I'm writing from theme after all. I am the girl who gave it all up to have everything, then decided none of it mattered. Were life only an on-screen spectacular -- unfolding over a long war or a short few days on a doomed boat -- I would succeed despite myself. Even if it meant hogging a floating door in a sea of corpses -- or standing alone at the foot of a sweeping staircase, wondering why it is nobody gives a damn.

Julie Gets Down to Work

I used to think showbiz was tough, but then I got a job. The high stakes drama that goes on behind the scenes of a big corporation makes Hollywood look like marshmallow night at theater camp.

I went to work for a certain global entertainment company, which wasn't necessarily the happiest place on earth. Don't get me wrong, I was tickled to finally find myself inside the fold. But it's a very stressful thing, bringing the magic.

Where I once started the day alone with my thoughts, I was now jolted awake by a chorus of semi-professional moms questioning my commitment to producing big fun for the family when I didn't appear to have one. Turns out creative gals can be surprisingly unimaginative around who we choose to give birth to, who we go home to and what we do when we get there.

The truth is what I like to do is sit alone in a barn and write screenplays in hopes of selling another one already. So, having carved out a small pocket of time to accomplish this -- free of judgement, expectations and regular pay -- just why am I back to blogging?

I agree with the late Nora Eprhon, the quintessential lady writer, who compared blogging to hostessing a party. "It had a different function from other kinds of writing," she said, "in that it wasn’t meant to just be this piece of writing that people read, it was meant to be a piece of writing that started a conversation among the readers. Which became a reason for people to read it, so that they could then express what they thought about it. And once you learn that about blogging, then you first of all have the sense not to read any of the comments—because at a certain point they will be mean about you."
Drats, so there's no escaping the mean girls. Well, bring it, bitches. That means you, soul-sucking directress of the bored with your fake smile and sunny corner office. You too, fancy agent who never called despite the big dreams and burnt marshmallows we girls shared back in theater camp. We're in my wheelhouse now, where the hours are hell and the benefits nonexistent -- but I'm finally running the show again.

Please don't expect any apologies here for the fact that my prince showed only briefly before I had him deported. I have always been a princess, and without a gaggle of noisy little pretenders to the throne vying for my attention, I'm in a very good spot to kick some royal ass.

Or I could land another big job. Please mention my name if you know anybody in need of an experienced mid-level pixie duster with a loyal blog following.

Julie Saddles Up

Remember when Lucy and Ricky packed it off for the country, once again altering the whole premise of the show? After a failed attempt at movie stardom and that troubled European cross-over tour, the Tropicana's bandleader was no longer Manhattan's hottest ticket. Aging vaudevillians Fred and Ethel shuffle stepped into that little Westport guesthouse, magically equipped to raise chicks and put down prize-winning roses. There was the wedding ring lost inside the brick barbecue, a ho-hum dinner dance at the local club, Lucy posing as a minuteman statue in the town square. Though suburban exile indeed brought the funny, it somehow signaled the franchise's disappearance into the sunset -- making one last gasp in a short-lived spin-off that had the tired foursome plutonium mining in Nevada.

Yes, time marches on (side note to Matthew Wiener!) and even the most compelling narrative may not survive being thrown into all-new territory. My story, for example, began with a plucky girl who abandoned a dream life as a travel writer to make her way in Hollywood -- only to board a non-stop thrill ride of heartbreaking yet hilarious near misses. My own heyday came and went, along with a river of starry-eyed friends and neighbors who packed up their yellowing head shots and moved in another direction. Over the years, I lost one little Hollywood bungalow to a greedy, foreign-born landlord and influx of gentrified West Side hipsters -- and fled another overrun by rats, possums and the random uninvited meth addict. 

Julie may have gone to Hollywood, folks, but you may now find her in nearby Burbank. While both the Disney and Warner backlots fan out alongside "Rancho Equestrian," horses, cattle dogs and the occasional goat on a stable boy's leash roam our streets. Likely dreamed up by the very same set designers who gave us the Ricardos' country spread, my converted barn features pine cabinets, beamed ceilings, a 50's era farm stove and a brick fireplace. I, too, garden and grill on the back patio. While I don't have a henhouse, this starkly quiet morning surely means the old guy down the alley up and murdered the local rooster.

Overrun with the city's fanciest horse folk, the sprawling equestrian center across the street hosts national shows, pre-stages the annual Rose Bowl, and offers riding lessons to the small children of now wealthy screenwriters with whom I went to film school. Frequenting the old school Mexican restaurant across the street is an odd combination of neighborhood families on horseback, the world's top blue grass acts, hipster followers of local indie bands and gay senior cowboys.

I used to think of the Valley as the place where David Hasselfhoff went to die after the whole drunken cheeseburger episode. Then again, this is the "near Valley," as my celebrity reporter friend Chloe and her imported English husband call it. They, too, have moved to the area dismissed in local parlance as "over the hill" -- although back in the day you couldn't get either one of them to venture farther west along Cahuenga than the discount parking lot on the wrong side of the Hollywood Bowl.

Maybe we're growing up. Given the cartoonish proportions of our imaginations, I think I can speak for Lucy when I say neither one of us ever imagined that happening. Though I may well have quieted down over here, I'm still very much in the game, count on that. This may be the outskirts, but it's the same tough town -- and you don't want to run around squawking too loudly about overstaying your welcome. Just ask the neighborhood rooster.