Pulp Fiction

Aleks never read my screenplays. In our early days—seventeen of them, to be exact, between our meeting and our wedding—he was reading Charles Bukowski in paperback. While I thus mistook my future husband for a hard-bitten intellectual belying the fragile spirit of a poet, the better description might be "blathering drunkard."

Aleks had been a dog trainer during his mandatory service in the Yugsolavian National Army. He skipped the country on a seaman’s visa before the outbreak of its civil war, when his duel ethnicity would have forced him to pick a side. We met one New Year’s Eve aboard a cruise ship, where I was a rookie journalist researching a travel guidebook and he was tending the midnight buffet in a white dinner jacket. He gave me a wink and a sprinkle of extra walnuts. I liked the way he said the word, as though it began with a “v” and finished with a “shh.”

The next time I heard from him he’d been fired and deported following a fistfight with a roughneck pastry chef from the wrong side of France. He only got as far as Frankfurt, since the Serbs had bombed the airport in his hometown of Dubrovnik. He hoped I’d come help him either escape back into Croatia or use my journalist credentials to return him to the U.S. I was half-way across the Atlantic before concluding, mysteriously, that wedlock was the best plan of attack.

I brought my surprise husband home to Miami, where he joined Mickey Rourke’s back alley boxing gym, discovered illegal drugs and struggled mightily with the pitfalls of capitalism, such as holding down a job. By night, he worked as a bouncer for actor Sean Penn, who then owned a South Beach bar called, ironically, Bash. Intervening during a bar fight one night, Aleks was seriously injured, nearly losing an eye.

He gave me half the court settlement in our divorce, and I used it to move to Hollywood and become a screenwriter. Aleks went to Marseilles to join the French Foreign Legion, but was deemed too large—and I’m guessing too often snockered—for covert operations. Last I heard he was in Dubai bodyguarding a Saudi sheik

All these years later, people often wonder why I never write about him, my real life hero with so many oversized flaws. Back in film school, when I mentioned the details in an e-mail to Obi Wan Kenobi, my legendary structure professor wrote back, “Is this fiction?” The trouble with writing your life, as Mr. Bukowski might have agreed, is even a fine, aged truth never goes down as whisky smooth as the lies.

Posted August 27, 2006
Hollywood, CA

Will Duck for Apples

I remember sitting in a trattoria in Rome, just outside of the Catacombs, the day before I was to have an audience with Pope John Paul II among a group of American journalists. While we probably wouldn’t be given a moment alone, I was trying to come up with a good question just in case—other than who makes his really terrific outfits, which has always been a topic of personal interest. Pondering the other great mysteries he and I might discuss, I looked down to discover a Lucite floor, like that of a glass-bottomed boat, revealing the ruins of an ancient villa. The proprietor told me that construction of newer buildings always uncovers a layer cake of archeological sites—and he decided to showcase his find.

In my town, nobody gives a fig about history. I suppose that’s because Hollywood is like sex—every generation wants to believe they invented it for themselves. Even I have to confess that what interests me most here is where the bizarre, scandalous, glamorous past intersects with my own daily life. For example, I live in a 1929 bungalow house among six others sharing a central courtyard. I’ve been told that the life-long mistress of the original owner lived here rent-free until just a few years back. No longer able to care for herself, she was forcibly moved into an old folks home, but not before stripping the house of every last crystal doorknob and brass light switch. You damn well can take it with you was this old dame’s final battle cry.

Virtually every other tenant of the fondly nicknamed Technicolor Village would be hard-pressed to relay any of its storied past beyond the installation of the new storage unit over the parking lot. Just as the other grocery shoppers at Bristol Farms are likely unaware that the store used to be the famed Chasen’s, where Ronald Reagan proposed to Nancy Davis in a booth located along what is now an overpriced selection of cheese. They still sell the restaurant’s famous chili—which Liz Taylor had shipped in buckets to the set of Cleopatra—a trivia fact lost on most every harried film exec stopping in for a fix.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy being a tourist in your own town. I've never been inside the Comedy Store, for example, even though I know it was once a world famous movie star hang-out called Ciro’s. I’ve not visited the Hollywood Park Memorial Cemetery, final resting place of so many early screen legends—despite its location near Paramount, where I leave plenty of inconclusive meetings feeling decidedly funereal. I do have a Crazy Actress Friend who claims the ghost of Rudolph Valentino chased her after a summertime outdoor movie screening at the mausoleum, a “Personal Note” she lists this on the back of her headshot.

I've dined at Hollywood's oldest restaurant Musso & Frank’s, knowing it was a very cool place to eat but wholly unaware about who drank here. Since the Writer's Guild was formerly located nearby, this became the favored watering hole of the literary giants lured out by studio money, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Reluctant transplant Dorothy Parker was a regular, famously calling Los Angeles “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city;” while William Faulkner liked to get up and mix his own mint juleps. Most all of them felt out of their element in Hollywood, and ended up drinking their lives away only steps from my house.

I never did manage to wrest the meaning of life out of the Pope that day in Rome, though I did get the name of his tailor. I have since read a lot of Dorothy Parker, who may have been a better person to ask, come to think of it, particularly in light of my similar predicament as an embittered girl wit stuck in a town that may never be sure what to do with me. “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard,” she once quipped. And then there’s my personal favorite, “Ducking for apples—change one letter and it’s the story of my life.” You just can’t get this kind of material in Vatican City.

By Dorothy Parker

Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye

Originally posted September 25, 2005 Hollywood, CA

The Stalkerazzi and The Screenwriter

My super cool new friend Chloe (not her real name) recently returned from Avril Lavigne's star-studded rocker wedding in Santa Barbara . She wasn’t invited or anything, she was there with the stalkerazzi. Another recent scoop was a rare post-Suri, Tom-free interview with Katie Holmes, conducted in the streets of Telluride. I’m not sure why Chloe didn’t spring the poor girl, offering safe haven and a coach ticket back home to Cincinnati. Then again, a good yellow journalist isn’t there to fight crime, only to observe it while hacking into Paris Hilton's BlackBerry and going through the Osbourne family trashcans.

A self-taught snoop, Chloe has developed a complex research methodology rooted in her enjoyment of talking to people and her interest in listening to their answers—two skills sets I admittedly lacked as a journalist. It occurred to me that our personal stories converged might make a good television series, sort of a harder-edged Pepper Dennis featuring a friendly, globetrotting gossiphound and her trash-talking, overweight, screenwriting sidekick with mid-level industry connections. What Nielsen viewer from the flyover states wouldn’t want to tune in for that brand of free-wheeling weekly exploits?

I scheduled a dinner meeting with Chloe to pitch my big idea, only to learn the following: 1) Some very thin women do eat whatever they want, in Chloe’s case hot dogs, fries and a chocolate shake, 2) Not all women wearing Daisy Dukes with heels look slutty but instead rather leggy and chic, and 3) The networks are loathe to mine the tabloid craze for comedy due to the poor showing of Courtney Cox's weird and scary FX drama, Dirt. Besides all that, Chloe had to sign an agreement with the magazine she works for not to divulge any “trade secrets.” Even if it weren’t for those damn dirty Cox-Arquettes beating us to the punch, a gag order by any name would surely preclude us from writing our own buzzworthy television pilot, The Stalkerazzi and The Screenwriter, starring Lisa Kudrow and Valerie Bertinelli. I wonder if it’s lonely when the paparazzi stops following you around town and giving you unpublishable nicknames, like Lindsay “Blowhands.” I mean, if you puke alone in the bathroom stall, does it make a sound?

Chloe called the next day, en route to join Nicole and Keith on their Fijian honeymoon tour, wondering if I'd been too upset by our meeting. She was sure, she said, that she'd seen a tear well in my eye. While I admit to being overwhelmed by emotion, it was certainly not brought on by another career disappointment, nor even by a new friendship forged with a kindred spirit who'd dumped a perfectly respectable life to follow a ridiculous dream. I was crying for the milkshake. With extra whipped cream. And a freaking cherry. She just tossed it all back like it was nothing, and walked her bony ass out the door in that sweet little pair of hotpants. There's just no justice in this town.

Snow White and the Seven Screenwriters

A little known fact about Hollywood screenwriters is we don't tend to like each other much. We don't really like anybody, actually, which is why we sit alone in a room all day every day making up stories about much cooler people living in way better worlds.

Although television writers do hunker down and work together over the course of a given season, I suspect their physical proximity is the primary source of both the comedy and the vitriol you hear so much about. It is likewise the probable source of the drama and the vitriol among one hour writers, although even they tend to break off alone at the first marginally socially acceptable moment possible.

As for satire and vitriol, that would be film school. Here not only writers, but also directors, producers and yes even those happy pants little animators must converge to blow up or die trying. Picture four years' worth of The Hunger Games only with more Oreos and just about the same amount of quad squirrel to chase in circles.

You see, when your mother warned you Hollywood was a scary place full of mean people, she didn't mean another wicked witch ensconced in a studio tower demanding some poor bastard in a headset bring back your still beating heart. Nobody wants your heart, of all things; this being Hollywood, you can check that crazy thing at the door. Anyway, you're not getting anywhere near the type with the power to crush you, who actually tend to be pretty awesome once they figure out you've brought along something they want, such as the lunch delivery from Panera.

No, not even the huntsmen (agents) scanning the forest (daily trades) in search of fresh meat (any passing reference to themselves) are the folks out to get you. It's the dwarves, people! Our own kind, an entire tribe of us overtaking every Starbucks up and down Ventura Boulevard by daybreak, endlessly pecking at laptops which may or may not even be turned on.  Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful, Dopey, Happy and the dreaded Sneezywe're not a very original clan, all things considered.

Obviously, I am Doc, the one who knows everything and is all too pleased to share it with you right here and naturally everywhere else. I view this not only as an extension of both my prickly personality and longtime survivor status, but also my job as a part-time film school instructor. In fact, I routinely look parents in the eye and assure them everything is going to be alright, despite that being a bald-faced lie.

This is partly why, when my partner Fabulous and I were recently named one of five finalists in a filmmaking competition, I reached out to the other four with offers of Facebook friendship and congratulatory re-Tweets. Only one responded in kind, however, an obvious Happy who is also Young and Adorable. There's been nary a peep from Preoccupied or Self-Sufficient, though Cautiously Optimistic recently emerged, quietly following me on Instagram. Should we meet, I plan to present each with a Pez dispenser in his or her likeness, along with a passive-aggressive joke about Doc's happy pills.

Like I say, we screenwriters aren't exactly extroverts, but some of us are better than others at pretending these woods of Holly are ever so warm and welcoming. I, for one, will surrender neither my satire nor my vitriol, since I am hostessing this party, and we are all going to have fun if it kills us.

Pictured: Right, the late Adriana Caselotti, the voice of Snow White; Above, Marge Champion (now 93) the dancer used as her model. Although I have no proof, I can only assume they hated one another for life.

Friends Don't Let Friends Write at Starbucks

According to Hollywood mythology, a local video store clerk took a regular booth at House of Pies to lay down the bones of an opus he was calling Pulp Fiction. Perhaps driven by some sense of originality, another unknown writer headed north a few blocks to join the hip counter crowd at Cafe 101, inspiring the world of Swingers. And then there's the Brooklyn comic who wrote Annie Hall. In the absence of his trusty typewriter, he scribbles bits of Oscar-winning dialogue on a small notepad in his shirt pocket, carrying the muse -- along with that tenacious little Asian girl, one presumes -- wherever his travels take him.

I can't actually confirm any of this, since I write in bed, where I am right now, coincidentally, watching the closing arguments of the Jodi Arias murder trial on HLN. Convinced I've developed a close personal relationship with the live Tweeting, phone-sexting, manifesto-authoring Lizzie Borden of our time, I suppose I'm cultivating my own legend.

That's not to say that this reclusive writer never leaves the house to form actual relationships with real people who aren't both overtly homicidal and remarkably telegenic. Why just this morning I stepped out to grab a footlong egg and cheese sandwich -- unconcerned that the counter guy at Subway knows my order, down to the light shaking of extra salt and careful slicing into four equal portions. Combine this with the pound of grapes and fresh pack of Dentyne I picked up, and I'm pretty well hunkered down for the day.

Obviously I bypassed the herd of wannabes shirking a real workplace in pursuit of high creativity -- only to invest our scant pennies in an establishment as unimaginative as Starbucks. I buy Folger's Classic Roast -- memorably dismissed by my Serbian communist ex-mother-in-law as "black water" -- in oversized plastic tubs on sale at Vons. (I find it's important an anecdote be equal parts colorful, confessional and specific in an age when your garden variety death row murderess fancies herself a significant literary voice).

Speaking of life sentences as only a writer can, I once saw a picture of Dorothy Parker hard at work while inadvertently dating herself in the dim light of a mid-century lamp, stubbornly studded with stars. Years beyond the Jazz Age glamor of the Algonquin Round Table, she appears to be at home, lost in thought and chewing on her pencil with an anemic houseplant in the shadows and yet another blank page staring her in the face.

Though she must have been around my age, seated there alone she seemed old before her time. A martini just out of frame might have been her only form of companionship, since she'd surely scoff at the notion of coming up for air to visit an inferior square table at some weenie internet cafe. Today we can compulsively check e-mail for a sense of connection, however false; or dial into Facebook with a quick quip in exchange for a word of recognition -- where Parker's crowd had to surface for an afternoon cocktail. "I like a good martini," goes her familiar toast, "Two at the very most. Three I'm under the table. Four I'm under the host." You don't get that kind of gem down at the corner Coffee Bean.

The thing about being great with dialogue is that's the easy part. As for the rest of the story -- and mind you I am no breast-augmented murderess with a built-in audience and a seven figure book deal in the works -- that's the part that drives a girl to drink. Of course, the only thing you'll find in my cup today is some weak and pathetic yet very reasonably priced coffee.

Manager & Me: A Love Story

It begins like any other Hollywood romance. You, perched on a bar stool, dangling a brand new, high concept feature spec like a femme fatale with a cigarette between her lips, awaiting the flame of a passing Zippo and a memorable quip. You know very well how to play it coolJessica Rabbit, Lauren Bacall, Olivia Newton-John "Bad Sandy" cool. You could write cool in your sleep, and often do just for kicks.

Unfortunately, this describes pretty much every unagented screenwriter in every Starbucks up and down Ventura Boulevard, desperately available, quietly dying inside, hellbent on forging that elusive bond certain to change everything forever on the sheer force of your God-given gift for wordplay.

You were with your former manager for nearly ten years, a virtual lifetime in Hollywood terms, before the light went out in your eyes. Oh sure, you flew solo for a time, content to ignore your own calls, offer up your own indecipherable script notes and buy your own Pan Asian noodle bar lunches.

You might have accepted a casual reference or two from a writer friendwho'd mysteriously declined representation from some prize catch or another herself. Seriously, if some bozo with a resume can't find the time to read you during a twenty-one hour flight to Club Med Phuket, what possible hope could the two of you have for a future?

Then one day you look up and there she is. Of all the gin joints in all the world. Okay, so there's no gin, because gin is about as passe as gluten and Range Rovers. Also, it isn't a joint, but rather her fancy Beverly Hills offices with the exposed pipes and the polished concrete. An exceedingly polite male assistant bears a passing resemblance to Steve Urkel, grown up now with a light English accent and a Wharton MBA.

You honestly couldn't say what she's wearing when your eyes first lock, beyond an air of confidence and a shimmering coat of that long-wearing lipstick that looks great on her and Halle Berry in the magazine but ridiculous on you. "I didn't want to read you and I didn't want to like you," she says. "But I did and I do."

The Zippo, the quip, the spark, the flameyou, my friend, are a goner. Everything feels new and alive and all things are possible. Not so fast, agent lady, you will suddenly think, dialing it back a notch.

No stranger to relationship mechanics, having failed at so many over the years yourself (see here, here and here), you know very well a girl can't just give it away. Certainly not in Hollywood, where honesty is the hallmark of a rank amateur, does one start throwing the truth around in the company of a virtual stranger with blindingly white teeth.

A formidable opponent indeed, she's lined her walls with books, real ones with hard covers filled with actual paper and words printed on them in ink. You remark on one whose title you like and she writes it downwith a real live pen on an honest to God notepadin the event you want to attach to the screen rights. "Are you real?" you want to cry out.

Instead you slip in a little indie project that would have made your ex's head explode, given the amount of sweat equity required of her. "On it," she says, jotting that down, too, in the prettiest cursive you've ever seen. It turns out bypassing the studio system is how she broke in not one but two recent Oscar-winning clients she is far too humble to describe as such, despite all that being Hollywood legend. 

She seals the deal with an anecdote about once stopping a pitch meeting with Oliver Stone upon the discovery of something sparkly on a client's ring finger. "I'm not the type to sit there and ignore a rock that size while talking deal points," she says.

"I'm yours!" you blurt out. "All yours! Forever!"  So much for Jessica Rabbit. Under her firm but gentle guidance, you've already become Betty Boop, the world's oldest fresh young thing, who just wants to be loved already. 

The plan is to start at awards season and work backwards to the part where the light might very well some day die in your eyes. Like love itself, Hollywood is anything but linear; we go round and round in circles here until the dizziness drives us mad. Another thing they won't tell you in film school is, yes, your story must have a beginning, middle and end, but it doesn't necessarily have to happen in that order. 

Boop boop be do.