By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"How are you doing?" I ask.
"Have you seen the people at the pool? I feel fat," Jonny frets.
"Fuck it," I say. "Are you ready to go to Warner Brothers?"
Manager has secured passes for both Jonny and me to enter the Warner lot, which is not as easy as it sounds. Apparently, major movie studios have been on "terror alert" for the last few years. Although we've been assured that Jonny can roam the lot freely while I'm in my meeting, he's convinced he'll be booted by security. Part of me wonders if I'll be booted by security. I still feel like a fraud.
We drive all the way to Burbank, blasting KROQ, straightening the curves and flattening the hills. Jonny spots the famous WB water tower looming in the distance and exclaims "Oh my GOD! That's where the Animaniacs live!" Neither of us can resist humming the Looney Tunes theme song from that point forward. We pull into one of the many studio gates, pop the trunk, submit to an airport-level security check and relinquish the car to a valet. The lot is massive, and we spy a few sets erected nearby. One of them looks like a realistic city block, complete with stores and sidewalks. (I bet Jonny that the fake neighborhood is a Smallville set, but it turns out to be the town of Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls.) We tiptoe past, dwarfed in the shadow of towering facades, and nobody seems to mind. A studio tram full of tourists cruises by; they all crane their necks to see if we're famous people. They seem disappointed that we're sweaty, disoriented Midwesterners just like them.
When we finally find the right building, I check in and am immediately ushered upstairs to the coolest office I have ever seen, lined wall to wall with toys and posters and movie paraphernalia. The occupant of this office pushes a button and the door automatically closes behind me. I am impressed. This is the most important meeting of the trip so far, and all I can do is perspire and stammer. I've been upstaged by an automatic door. There's something about a really pimped-out office that never fails to strike terror in my heart, especially when the inhabitant is only a few years older than me and wearing a rock tee over a thermal undershirt.
Where do they find all these 35-year-old wunderkinder to run studios? And more importantly, where are they hiding the gray-haired patriarchs? They must all be forcibly exiled to that suburb of Beverly Hills where I saw the well-heeled oldtimers shuffling around. Everyone in this room is under 40. I wonder if they know how lucky they are. There are only two ways in life to wind up with a remote-controlled door: become a paraplegic or become a millionaire. These guys wound up on the right side of the door.
The meeting is short, too short, in my estimation, to get a read on anyone. But on my way out, they tell me to stop at the studio gift shop. "You'll get an employee discount now. You work for us, right? "
I don't know if they're joking or not, so I snort charmingly.
An hour later, Jonny and I are lost on the backlot again. I'm not sure what just happened, but based on the "employee discount" remark, I think it was swell. Jonny looks overwhelmed after five hours of air travel and an impromptu studio trek. We somehow find Manager's friend's office and he gives us water and congratulates me. Manager calls to see how the meeting went. Then Agent calls. Then Lawyer calls. I call my mom.
The ambiguity of these situations is unbearable for a control freak like me. I'm an industry novice, I don't know whether to be joyous or cautious, and the primary reason I came out here in the first place (to meet the Juno producers) has been supplanted by something completely unexpected. Now I know why Manager kept nagging me to come to L.A.; it's like I didn't really exist in people's minds until I actually entered the bubble. I was a 2-D stick figure before, an archetype, another screenwriter from flyover country banging out stories about ugly people. More than one agent has told me that they mine the Midwest for talent; we're known for having darkly funny narrative voices that those sunkissed California kids can't seem to ape. More importantly, we're polite (read: easily cowed) and finish our work on time. But once we're uprooted and spirited away to Hollywood, we supposedly become lazy and content, losing that razor's edge that made us gleam in the first place. "You'll be ruined in a few years," one executive tells me matter-of-factly.
If I'm lucky, I think. If being "ruined" means being able to pay off my car, start a college fund for children real and hypothetical, and get central air in the warped sweat lodge I call home, then let me be thoroughly and elegantly ruined. I'm not asking a lot of the industry titans. I don't need to be Charlie Kauffman, or Nora Ephron, or "the next Zach Helm," as one agent is fond of saying. All I ask is that they let me play for a few more rounds. I love writing screenplays and knowing they could plausibly evolve into a real, visual microcosm. I love talking to people who've been involved with movies that I loved as a fan, not a participant. Yes, I also like those slim FedEx envelopes with the life-changing money inside and I like having an "Inc." after my name, and I like hearing my mother say "Holy shit" in a quiet, unsteady voice when I tell her Dreamworks is on the other line. But what I really want, more than anything else, is to continue to live off the stuff I invent. It can be a small life or a grand life; I honestly don't care. I know this rare euphoric spike in my career trajectory won't last forever. The career itself could be a fluke, a brief intense event that we'll all chuckle about in a few years. "Remember all that movie stuff? That was weird." But as long as I'm here, I'll keep storming the bungalows.