Saturday, September 29, 2012

Billion Dollar Review

I drove my shitty Datsun 200sx into Beverly Hills to meet with John Updike's literary agent in a building that smelled like F. Scott Fitzgerald's spilled whiskey. I forget the agent's name now but he wanted to hire a cute, charming, 25 year old girl with great phone skills who would entertain his big name clients and cover scripts on the side and provide some eye candy for the slow days. Well, I've talked to cute, charming 25 year old girls, so I figured I was a good fit for the job.

Moments before I left my Venice Beach shit hole room I got a call from my employment agency telling me to drive to Paramount Studios for a Red Carpet catering event put together by Martin Lawrence. I told them I'd be there asap. So I was dressed in my finest urban trendy outfit that was straight from Express for Men, I had shaved and brushed my teeth and was going to serve drinks to skinny porn escorts from The Valley. The Agent wanted eye candy so I would give him eye candy. I hated myself a little bit for compromising but this was early on in my Los Angeles career and I was not nearly as jaded as I would be three years hence. I was committed to success in the screenwriting field and in one hour I was going to chat with John Updike's agent and then walk on the lot that made The Breakfast Club and Titanic. That's not a bad day for a baseball playing music major from New England.

I skipped up the same worn stairs that Humphrey Bogart and Abby Mann had walked up and charmed the socks off of that agent. He gave me a script to cover and I said I'd have it done by the end of the day. In fact, I'd already pre-judged it by the title alone, "Swamp Shaman"
"Any questions?" he asked rhetorically.
"What's your secret to success," I queried as I glanced at the signed first edition copies of Rabbit Run and other Updike novels on his bookshelf.
He was taken aback and seemed annoyed, which was basically the end of my running for the job, charm or no charm.
"Secret? Do my job."
He looked at the door and a cute, charming 25 year old girl opened it and gave me her best "get the fuck out of here" smile. I knew was over my head. Later that evening I was the best dressed bus boy Paramount Studios has ever seen.

This scenario plays out every day in a thousand ways in Hollywood and a book I found at a thrift store picks up where my story ends.

Jeffrey Stepakoff is not a cute, charming 25 year old girl but he didn't charm his way into any job either. He writes in detail how he became one of the 300 people who create entertainment for 300 million. I should hate him for finding the success I wanted. The fables I imagined were completely true: 30 year old art grads who couldn't make me laugh if they channeled George Burns DO sit around and smoke pot and play foosball and make $80K a month thinking of ways to combine cartoon lions and Shakespeare plots. A single joke might take a week to write. They have fun. They fuck in the copy room. They marry models. They drink on expense accounts that make WWII reparations look paltry. They drop their drinks at Paramount Studios red carpet affairs and are annoyed when the bus boy who cleans it up is wearing the same pants they are wearing. For these reasons and more, I should despise Jeffrey Stepakoff...but the fact I could not hate him is exactly the reason he succeeded in Hollywood. This entire story is told honestly and plainly. He is not bragging. He is likable and affable and impossible to hate. At times Mr. Stepakoff seems humble and apologetic. It isn't his fault that studios went berzerk for hip ideas and paid out the ass for them. He was in the right place at the right time and he never annoyed anyone. His personality fit the artistic landscape while mine was the kind of personality that successful people tell anecdotes about; I'm used as an example of what not to do. Be charming but don't be clever. Don't act smarter than the agents but don't act dumber either. Act professional, unless you are a cute 25 year old girl.

Of course, I can not respect Stepakoff for working on Dawson's Creek and apparently thinking it's some kind of accomplishment to write soft core porn for two hollow characters. No, he's not an artist by my definition but Dawson's Creek was a 6 year long Abercrombie & Fitch commercial so that's not news. A professional does his job in the context of the landscape. Stepakoff never intended to produce art. He wanted a job writing jokes that were a moment's distraction. He had no illusions of genre busting story lines and he didn't even aspire to write and shop around a film script like almost everyone else in Los Angeles.

His secret? He wrote plays in college, contacted alumni who were in Los Angeles, wrote spec scripts, met with agents, kept his promises, didn't cross picket lines, didn't try to fuck people over, bought low and sold high. Took direction well. Was never a maverick. And he left Los Angeles when it didn't work for him anymore.

His book, Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing. even earns points for investigating the sources of the artistic shakeup that has happened in television writing over the decades. If I were deluded I could blame my lack of success on the writer's union that chiseled the studios for pennies and in the process killed the golden goose and led to Cameraman/editor dominated reality show packages that shot to popularity a year before I arrived in Hollywood with hair gel in my eyebrows and a dumb grin on my mug. I was fucked before I even tried to get a job and I didn't know it. I had no contacts, no job, no home, no money and my talent was admittedly as a maverick writer who would bust genres and chart new ground. My first spec movie script was a biography of 19th century social philosopher Henry David Thoreau, which might work in an alternate reality Los Angeles landscape but was dead in the water in the existing Los Angeles. That combination is exactly how you fail. And talent. It hurts me to admit I have not grasped the 3 to 4 act structure. This is critical. And jokes....I'm not that funny in real life.

But I had a trick card up my sleeve and when I looked at cosmetic tits of the plastic phone jockey in the agent's office I knew I was buying my own kind of equity that would pay residual benefits for all time. I knew my limits and I knew what I was really looking for and in that respect I left Los Angeles as rich as Mr. Stepakoff. There were no billion dollar kisses for me but if that meant I never had to delve into the false realm of Dawson's Creek then it was worth it.

P.S. The Thoreau script is still for sale.

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.