By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
There is a girlin the aquarium at the Standard Hotel. Actually, the claustrophobia-inducing glass box mounted behind the front desk is more like a terrarium; it holds no water or marine life, but it does contain a sleek chaise, and the aforementioned stupefying human female. Her head is shaved bare, and she wears a long cotton dress, a Yamamoto, maybe, or a deceptively chic flea market score. Despite her cramped habitat, this living art installation seems happy enough; she stretches out like a reptile and casually accepts a call on her cell phone. I wave at her. She waves back and assumes the lotus position on her perch. It's midnight in West Hollywood, but Boxing Helena musters a 1.21-gigawatt smile for my benefit. The alignment of her teeth is flawless.
"Are you checking in?" the whippet-thin man behind the desk asks in a SoCal monotone. I don't answer. I'm waving limply at the bald girl in the box like a kid ogling a wombat at the Minnesota Zoo. Besides, I can barely hear the dude; there's a Gorillaz tune being played at warehouse-rave volume by a teenage DJ stationed five feet away. Models, submodels, actors, agents, and celebutantes mill about the chilly Sixties-modern lobby, zooming on coke and $12 martinis and wearing white jeans that fit like semigloss paint. A few revelers are curled up in large Plexiglas globes suspended from the ceiling. The entire room is darkened, but for the luminous girl-terrarium looming above like a sadistic David Fincher set piece. According to my temporal lobe, it's 2:00 a.m.--I'm still on Cornpone Standard Time--and my eyelids are lead aprons. I push my credit card wordlessly across the desk and wonder if the beds are as spartan as the decor.
My manager, Manager, had advised me to book at the Standard. "It's inexpensive and it's on the Strip," Manager had told me during one of the 17 extremely urgent phone conversations we'd shared in the prior week. I soon discovered that "inexpensive" meant "$200 a night for a single," but I decided to unclench for once in my life and shell out for luxe lodgings. During the harrowing, 75 mph Death-Cab-for-Cody taxi ride from LAX, I'd envisioned a plush, tasteful lobby, smiling attendants, perhaps the muted tinkle of a jazz pianist playing nocturnes for incoming guests. Instead, the cab had screeched up alongside what appeared to be a nightclub, complete with crowds of tanorexic bitches flanking a velvet rope at the door.
"No," I'd said patiently. "I need to go to the Standard Hotel."
"This is the Standard Hotel," the driver had replied, popping the trunk.
Having successfully checked into the Hotel California, I head down the hallway toward the elevator, dragging my cheap suitcase behind me. An inscrutable art film is being projected on the white wall ahead; it's kind of like sleeping in the new wing at the Walker. My room is extremely cold both aesthetically and literally; there's a Warholian silver space chair in the corner that I photograph immediately. The bathroom sink is traffic-cone orange. The bed feels like a plank. I love this hotel. It has as many sharp edges as I do. I begin calculating how many more screenplays I will have to sell before I can afford to reside at the Standard permanently, like Royal Tenenbaum but with a killer tan and back-end points.
I pick up the phone and call my husband Jonny. I hate to wrest him from the arms of Morpheus at this hour, but I need to hear his voice.
"You made it," Jonny says groggily.
"Chick in a box," I say.
"They have this chick. In a box. At the hotel."
"Is she alive?"
A few weeks prior to my departure, my humorless shrink back in Minneapolis writes me a special scrip for a popular anti-anxiety med. (Talking to strangers gives me unsightly stress hives, and I'm predictably freaked out about meeting with studio moguls on unfamiliar terrain.) My husband and I like to heckle the TV commercials for this particular drug, which features a pouting animated blob who smiles beatifically once his serotonin has been regulated. I've been popping my pills like any compliant neurotic and now, alone at the Standard, I suddenly find myself with a gut-shredding stomachache. It's bad. Alien-bad. I curl up on the unyielding bed and clutch my abdomen, gasping in pain. Turns out I'm one of the pitiful 10 percent who experience extreme side effects with this stuff. I switch off the space-age lamp on the nightstand and shudder into a fitful sleep.
Two years ago, when I was working as a peep show girl and blogging daily about the pitfalls of masturbating in a booth for a living, I met Manager via a brief and professional e-mail. He'd discovered my blog, the Pussy Ranch, while surfing online. He told me he worked in Hollywood and wanted to know if I'd ever considered writing a screenplay. I hadn't, but I had written a slender, cynical memoir about my tenure in the sex industry. Though I anticipated an anticlimactic end to my correspondence with Manager, I mailed him my manuscript. This powerful stranger in California pulled strings accordingly, and before my eyes could even adjust to the blinding light of salvation, I had a six-figure book advance, an agent, an attorney, and, of course, Manager.
Emboldened by fat checks, I decided maybe I'd try my hand at the screenwriter's craft after all. "If you pull this off, you won't have to go to work again," Manager was fond of saying. "You can buy a big house, sit by the pool, drink and write all day." (He'd picked the ideal carrot to dangle in front of this horse.) The resulting script was Juno, a dark comedy about a boisterous 15-year-old girl who is unintentionally impregnated by her "friend with benefits" and offers her unborn baby to a troubled married couple. Everyone asks me where the idea came from, but I'm not exactly sure. I mean, I was Juno as a teenager: aggressive, goofy, obsessed with Led Zeppelin, horror movies, and my best male friend, who played drums and smelled terrific. But I'd never gotten pregnant (we compliant pill-poppers tend to avoid such fates) and my teen years had been relatively drama-free. Juno was really a hypothetical dramatization of my worst fear as a kid. And, unpredictably, Hollywood went apeshit for it almost instantly.
One morning, a production company called Mandate made an offer that Manager and Agent told me I couldn't refuse. Manager advised me to come out to L.A. as soon as possible to meet with the appropriate parties; he'd also arranged meetings with a couple of major studio execs who'd read my script and were interested in hiring me for future projects. I assured him that I'd pack my L.A. Looks hair mousse and L.A. Gear sneakers and fly out the following week. Meanwhile, reps from every agency were calling my house at all hours, spewing hyperbolic agent-speak and using words like "brilliant" and "visionary" that made me wince. It freaked my scene. "I'm flying to Minnesota tomorrow," one agent insisted. "I'll do whatever it takes. I must have you now." The intensity of the promises--and the degree of possession they implied--felt suffocating. It also felt kind of cool; I'd never been wooed like that by someone who wasn't expecting sex in return.
I wake up in my hotel room early the following morning. Very early. It's 5:00 a.m., and I can't get back to sleep in that hard Bauhaus bed. I turn on MTV and filch some animal crackers from the minibar for breakfast. They feel like shrapnel in my tender stomach. By the time I haul my carcass out of bed two and a half hours later, I've seen the Bollywood-inspired video for the Black Eyed Peas' "Don't Phunk with My Heart" three times.
I shower and dress to convey wide-eyed naïveté in bellbottom jeans and a flowered baby-doll top from the mall. Hollywood people love idiot savants; the more humble and Midwestern I act, the more delighted they are. Sometimes I even pretend to be unfamiliar with lingo I memorized a year ago. I muss my blond hair until I resemble a baby chick; this is no accident. "Incubate my career!" the look says. "Hatch me!"
I head downstairs to find that the lobby has quieted considerably since the previous evening's school-night bacchanal. My first meeting of the day is with Paramount, which thrills me because Paramount icon Robert Evans (the subject of the doc The Kid Stays in the Picture) is my personal hero. I wait outside the main entrance and watch as the actor Kevin Dillon from Entourage retrieves his car from the valet. Finally, an executive pulls up in a black Audi at 8:30 sharp. I hop in and introduce myself and we cruise down ocean-cooled Sunset, which is flanked with tall swaying palms. Maybe I've seen L.A. Confidential too many times, but I always think palm trees look vaguely ominous, like an underworld flag. As if merely being exposed to such seductive tropicalia means I'm destined to wind up vivisected like the Black Dahlia and left for dead behind an In-N-Out Burger.
The executive and I stop briefly at a Starbucks in a strange, slow little neighborhood where elderly Angelenos shuffle about in expensive pantsuits. "This is one of the only places in L.A. where you can see actual senior citizens," the executive says, as if we're stalking leprechauns. "You probably won't see another old person for the rest of your trip." He turns out to be correct.
When we pull onto Gower, I know we're approaching the studio. The last time I was in town, as a honeymooning tourist, I snapped a blurry photo of the Paramount entrance from a speeding tour bus. This time, I'm going in. Earlier, I had expressed my anxieties about this meeting to Manager, and he had replied, "Diablo, there are a lot of scary places in this world. The Paramount lot is not one of them." Easy for a native to say.
As we pull up under the famous white arched gates, the executive notices that I've blanched. "This is a great thing. You've
arrived," he says kindly. My stomach is killing me, but even late-stage arsenic poisoning couldn't keep me from storming the bungalows at this point. Inside the lot, I'm delighted to see that "The Mountain" is as Old Hollywood as it gets in terms of architecture and ambiance. I peep at the big soundstages and wonder if anything worthy is filming at the moment. And by "worthy," I mean, "not starring Hilary Duff."
The meeting itself takes place in an airy office lined with framed movie posters of recent Paramount projects. The power-players in attendance are gracious enough to indulge my self-professed Robert Evans fetish with a few vague anecdotes. ("Bob is a trip. He'll tell stories for hours.") They toss out quotes from Juno in conversation as though it's Napoleon Dynamite or something; it's incredible hearing my baby get the sound-bite treatment. Emboldened by adrenaline, hubris, and SSRIs, I'm in top form. I talk about my stupid ideas for movies, books I'm interested in adapting, directors with whom I'd love to collaborate, and the second spec script I've just completed. I'm careful not to mock any actors offhandedly, seeing as someone in the room might have them on speed dial. Now is not the time to crack Scientology jokes or ask if the rumors are true about Vin "The Pacifier" Diesel. I leave the meeting feeling as though I've done medium-well and possibly endeared myself to the brass.
Afterward, the executive drives me back to the hotel, gabbing optimistically about possible upcoming projects. I nod mutely. The strangest thing about business travel is the absence of relief. After an intimidating meeting, there's no family to return to, no familiar-smelling home with stinky pets and broken air conditioner. My temporary haven is sleek and alien and about as comforting as a fiberglass meatloaf.
I have a couple of hours before my next meeting, so I decide to explore the hotel like my brother and I used to when we were kids. No gift-shop souvenir was safe from our grubby mitts, no child-unfriendly piano bar shielded from our prying eyes. In this spirit I head off on an anthropological mission, but I only get as far as the pool. The Standard features one of the only "common pools" in the West Hollywood area, meaning you don't have to be a guest at the hotel to use it (though apparently you do need chiseled abs and IMDB credits). As a result, the people-watching on deck is primo. Aspiring actors lounge and read scripts with the sole purpose of being observed. Comely guys and dolls in designer swimwear power lunch beneath mod steel umbrellas. The horizon is stunning, the sky is an intense blue, and a lone palm tree dominates my field of vision.
I sit down on a beach chair and order a Corona, the most affordable thing on the drink menu. Twenty minutes later, a SAG-eligible waiter returns with my brew on a tray. (When you're a size-10, Victorian-pale woman in a bikini from Target surrounded by Brazilian models in resort couture, you can't expect expedited service.) I drink my beer and listen to the hum of industry gossip surrounding me: "We've got a first-look deal with Sony," "Mischa's agent says she might be interested." "We're aiming for Sundance in '07." Based on my piecemeal observations, the Standard isn't really a hangout for established A-listers, more like mildly successful aspirants. I'd fit right in around here were it not for my cellulite deposits and uncompromised soul.
At that moment, a woman saunters out onto the pool deck in a shock-pink bikini, running her fingers idly through her long hair. She's walking behind--well, technically, she's attached to--a pair of HH-cup breast implants that thrust outward like saline torpedoes. No exaggeration here; she makes Pamela Anderson look like a sixth-grade flatty. Upon her arrival, time stops. Conversations trail off. Everyone on the patio stares unabashedly at her; normally it would be rude to gawk, but this hyper-engineered über-mammal clearly embraces attention. She grins at the crowd and swings her beach bag onto a chair near the grass on the periphery. Suddenly, as if on cue, the sprinkler system kicks in, nailing her and nobody else. She shrieks in surprise as cold water mists her breasts in a not-unattractive fashion, then realizes how utterly hot it looks. Arching her back languidly, she strikes a pose for her captive audience.
"We should invite her over here," a teenage millionaire murmurs to his companion at the table next to mine.
An hour after the impromptu poolside shower show, I drive my rented Toyota Camry over to the Fairfax neighborhood to have lunch with Manager. I've met him once before, but it always feels weird to actually see him after months of long-distance phone contact, him playing the invisible Charlie to my geeky Angel as we co-conspire. Manager has a pretty badass office next to CBS Studios and across the street from my second-favorite hotel in Los Angeles, the Farmer's Daughter. (The Daughter is the kind of joint where they're hip enough to provide you with chi-chi organic shampoo, but not so hip that they have a chick in a box.) Canter's Deli is also nearby, which means hot pastrami and first-rate celebrity sightings are within reach. You always see rehabilitated old rock stars in that place, patting down their rooster-mullets in an attempt to look inconspicuous.
I've never seen valet parking at an office building before, but here it is. Valet is law out here, though it pains me to part with the Camry, which I've nicknamed the Moneywagon. Upstairs, Manager and I quickly get reacquainted as I clutch my gut and explain the drug reaction. He's in worse shape than I am, having recently broken a foot. He props his swollen tootsies up on his desk and passes me a printed itinerary detailing all the meetings I'll need to attend within the next two days. According to this piece of paper, I'll be meeting with the producer of a certain acclaimed film (think Paul Giamatti and Merlot) in a scant two hours. Tonight, I'll have dinner with Juno's executive producer. Breakfast with a West Coast rep from my agency tomorrow, a presentation at the agency afterward, then the Paramount lot again at noon, then Warner Brothers tomorrow afternoon, then a meeting with my attorney, all on different ends of the earth. This is daunting shit for a girl who doesn't like to drive to the grocery store, let alone navigate the 405 Freeway in a cumbersome rental. Also, as I've mentioned, I'm scared of strangers, especially the kind who refer to Robert DeNiro as "Bob."
"You think that's bad?" Manager says. "Wait until the next time you come out here. It's just going to get crazier." I hope he's right.
We walk--actually, I walk and Manager hobbles gamely--to a nearby café where nearly everyone is eating salad and sharing tall bottles of what I repeatedly hear referred to as "flat water." If you order water at a restaurant in Minnesota, its flatness is a given. You'll get a glass of cold tap with ice, no questions asked. If you're jonesing for something fizzy you order a PBR. But in L.A., water comes in many distinct flavors, carbonation levels, and vintages. You can even get water that's been blessed by a rabbi and is approved for consumption by paragons of Judaism such as Madonna and Paris Hilton. Drinking tap water around here is unheard of. L.A.'s water is supposedly pumped in from other locations via aqueducts anyway, so maybe it tastes unfashionably rural.
"When I used to call you, it always seemed like you didn't believe the things I was saying," Manager says, alluding to the early days of our business relationship.
"I didn't," I say, attacking a pile of French fries. I refuse to do as the Romans do, cuisine-wise. Salads are for pussies and Best Supporting Actresses. "What reason did I have to believe you? I'd never written a screenplay before. Everyone I've ever met who's tried to write a screenplay has languished in obscurity. It didn't seem possible to succeed at it."
"Obviously, it was," Manager says smugly.
"I just think this whole thing is insane," I say.
"It's like the story about the emperor's new clothes," Manager says. "One person in power decided you'd written the greatest movie ever. Then another guy jumped on the bandwagon. Next thing you know, you have the most talked-about script in Hollywood and two studios are fighting over you."
"The emperor's new clothes, huh?" I say.
Afterward, Manager wants ice cream, so we walk/hobble to the farmers' market and enjoy the frosty homemade stuff on a remote bench. "I hate people," Manager remarks, digging into a dish of peppermint stick.
"Me too," I say happily.
I'm driving the Moneywagon onto the Lot, which is the actual official name of the space formerly known as Warner Hollywood Studios, United Artists Studios, or the Samuel Goldwyn Studios, depending on the era. Now, it's just the Lot. When Manager told me to drive to a place called the Lot for my meeting, I don't realize it's an actual movie lot. In fact, I don't figure it out until the parking attendant laughs at me and hands me a detailed map of the premises. It's a lot, all right, full of the usual eerie silence, giant soundstages and grips tooling around in golf carts. I'm headed for the Frank Sinatra Bungalow, which was Frank's actual office back in the day. It's hot as hell, and even though the Lot is a Lilliputian operation compared with other studios, I find myself wandering aimlessly down the studio's Main Street, wondering where the hell Frankie's crash pad might be. I finally find it after following a complex series of directions I get from a security guard.
Frank Sinatra's former bungalow looks exactly like I wanted it to look, equal parts dignity and ring-a-ding-ding. The producer who now occupies this office is a delightfully grounded fellow who asks me as many questions about my actual life and the Twin Cities scene as he does about screenwriting. He gives me a DVD of the gritty adolescent drama Thirteen, which he also produced, and I instantly decide that I love him. I will guard the DVD like a talisman for the rest of the trip; it is special. It's like being given a hamburger by Ray Kroc himself. The producer listens to me babble as I describe my new spec script, a darkly humorous story about a very unlikable schoolteacher.
"It sounds like you're drawn to the same kind of characters over and over again," he comments. Which is true. I've written more material about suicidal middle-aged male protagonists finding redemption than I care to admit.
"I don't know why I do that," I confess. I really don't. I'm a twentysomething female who couldn't find redemption in a coupon book. But the producer seems satisfied with the response and lobs a few interesting propositions at me. I answer them as if this is really happening.
When it's all over, I'm relieved to be off the Lot. The Lot scares me. In my car, feeling confident enough to pilot an automobile down Melrose while talking on the phone, I call Jonny back in Minneapolis. "I just had the best meeting!" I say. "I got a free DVD. Oh, and I might get to write a TV show or something." The propositions here are so vague that I never know what to report.
"Cool! Did you meet Robert Evans?" Jonny asks.
"Not yet," I say. "I'm working on it, though. I met someone who claims to have hung out in his bedroom at Woodland. His bedroom."
"Close enough," Jonny says.
As it turns out, Juno's producer has to fly to a set in Vancouver due to a minor emergency on one of his movies, which throws a wrench in our evening plans. I'm bummed, but this also gives me a chance to spend a few hours without my game face. Manager rounds up a few of his friends, and we wind up having dinner and cocktails by the hotel pool. ("Hey, I think we we stole that MTV guy's table," one of my dinner companions snickers. Sure enough, VJ Dave Holmes is pouting a few feet away, denied of prime poolside seating.) Everyone's in the movie business in some way; it's like being trapped in an episode of Entourage, even though Kevin Dillon checked out this morning, as far as I know.
"Do any of you have any friends who aren't in the industry?" I ask jokingly.
"No," the group replies in unison.
I excuse myself early, exhausted. Jonny is flying out to meet me tomorrow, and I hope I've got a modicum of energy left with which to greet him. We've got plans to spend the weekend doing what we do best: boozing at the Rainbow alongside graying hair-metal frontmen. I know there are other things I could be doing tonight, but all I want to do is sleep.
The next morning, I drive to Nate 'n' Al's in Beverly Hills for breakfast. This deli is so old-school it makes Canter's look like Chi. Apparently, Larry King eats breakfast here every day, and sure enough, he's two booths away from me, noshing with his morning buddies. He looks fragile and adorable, like a Muppet likeness of himself. I'm here to meet with the head of my agency's literary department, an incredibly animated and hyperactive fellow. Like Larry King, he eats here every morning. He tells me an amazing story about saving a guy's life in the bathroom.
"I walked in and he was choking over the toilet," he says gesturing wildly. "Without thinking, I gave him the Heimlich. Out popped the cantaloupe, and there you go! So what do you want for breakfast? Do you like eggs? How about an omelet? Everything is delicious."
He pushes a new copy of Variety across the table at me. "By the way, I saw you in the trades. Congratulations."
I look down at Variety and see that there's an article headlined "Mandate Finds Its Juno." I had known there was a trade announcement about the movie planned, but I didn't know Manager had cleverly arranged for the article's run date to coincide with my trip to L.A. For the rest of the day, people I meet will say "Diablo Cody? I saw you in the trades today!" The trades are a mercurial bible, a daily devotional for everyone in the know.
After breakfast we go to the agency, which is situated on an extremely swank block (I have been informed by locals that there are, in fact, slums in Beverly Hills. Hey, Andrea Zuckerman has to live somewhere.) I join a group of agents in a conference room, where my New York agent is being patched in via videophone. I wave at the screen helplessly. My New York agent is cute; I've never actually seen her before. The agents pass around packets describing "hot" source material I could potentially be hired to adapt. I'm surprised to see more than a few writers from the blogosphere on there; seems we're all being taken seriously these days. I remember when one of the novelists on that roster was an HTML newbie who gratefully traded links with me in 2001. We now both have book deals and screenwriting deals, and our blogs are probably less interesting as a result. Blow your load elsewhere and you're not left with much juice.
The material all looks promising to me, but one aspect of the agency meeting is vaguely disturbing. Everyone laughs at everything I say. I'm not that funny. It's like watching that awful show about Britney Spears and seeing how assorted sycophants in her posse giggle over her every remark as if Britney's a modern-day Oscar Wilde. I'm certainly not complaining; hell, it's awesome being treated this way. But I know I'm not nearly as clever as feedback would indicate.
The meeting is a long one, and the video monitor gives me the willies for the duration, but it finally ends around 11:00. After bidding my biggest fans goodbye, I drive back out to Paramount, where I have a brief meeting with the production company responsible for my favorite movie of all time. I wonder if they can get me in a room with Wes Anderson, then I realize Wes Anderson would probably peg me as a vulgar simpleton. Wes Anderson would never work at a peep show. Wes Anderson probably doesn't shop at Marshall's. Wes Anderson wouldn't piss himself at the Uptown Transit Station in a drunken stupor. Wes Anderson is a genius.
After that meeting, I drive back to the Standard at an unsafe speed. I know Jonny has already arrived, and I'm tired of navigating this clownhouse alone. In the lobby, I phone our room and tell him I'm waiting downstairs. I pose photogenically in one of those Plexiglass swings so I look like I belong here, like 36 hours in West Hollywood can lend me the air of cool detachment I've always longed for. Jonny appears at the lobby entrance with a dazed expression on his face, and I immediately blow my cover by leaping out of the swing and throwing my arms around him.
"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.
That night, Jonny and I have sushi and ice-cold sake with Manager at Matsuhisa. There is the tacit understanding that our lives have changed somehow. Our bellies full of premium yellowtail, Jonny and I decide to turn in early. The next morning we have breakfast at a much-beloved West Hollywood pancake house called the Griddle, and decide to spend the rest of the day lounging poolside among the Saturday regulars. My meetings are finally over, and we're determined to soak up the atmosphere for the remainder of the weekend. It's a stunning day, as always. Jonny orders a round of Coronas and we clink bottles ceremoniously.
In that moment, in the brilliant midday sun, neither of us knows what we're celebrating yet. Also, we don't realize that we're slowly roasting: Within a few hours we'll both have sunburns so severe that we can't touch or hug or even sleep properly without wincing in pain. Vermillion flesh will flake off our torsos, and we'll apply medicated cream in hourly increments. But right now, in this smiling sunlit moment, it's bliss. We have no idea how hot it is.
The following week, after I've been back in Minnesota for a few days, I accept an offer from Warner Brothers to write two scripts for an amount of money that surprises even my barracuda lawyer. A lot of people call me in the moments that follow, and they all seem concerned that my heart will explode. "Why don't you take a few minutes to process this?" they say. "Take a walk or something." So I do. I go outside in my bare feet and start walking. Jonny isn't home (he's off rehearsing for a local production of Bye Bye Birdie), but when he gets back, I know he won't be surprised. Jonny is never surprised. "Told you," he'll say.
Until he gets home, hours later, I'm all by myself. And I'm still walking. There are twigs and bits of asphalt sticking to the naked soles of my feet, but I don't feel them until much later. Shock is a great analgesic. I realize this is the only silence I've had in a while. It's getting dark the way it gets dark here, with mosquitoes and barking dogs and kids pleading to stay outside for a few more minutes. What happened in L.A. feels like it happened a million years ago, in a different solar system, and yet I feel like I'm still there, in that golden state, lost on some back lot with my heart in my throat.