Authors: Death by Hollywood
TABLE OF CONTENTS
FOR MY BELOVED WIFE, DAYNA,
WHO HAS ALWAYS BELIEVED IN ME,
EVEN WHEN I DIDN'T
There used to be a writer by the name of Merle Miller, who wrote that people in Hollywood are always touching youânot because they like you, but because they want to see how soft you are before they eat you alive. He was right. It's a tough town and a tough business, and if you don't watch your step, either one'll kill you, which I guess is what this story is actually about.
By way of formal introduction, my name is Eddie Jelko, and I'm an agent. I represent screenwriters, primarily, and a few important directors. I used to represent actors when I first started in the business almost twenty years ago, but it didn't take me long to figure out that actors are crazy. They tend to be paranoid, narcissistic, and, in general, oblivious to the needs and feelings of others. The good news is, they can also be charming, seductive, charismatic, and, in the case of the very few, so genuinely gifted that simply being in their presence is a privilege. That said, celebrity, for the ego-challenged, can be as destructive as heroin. A little is too much, as they say, and too much is never enough.
In my naÃ¯vetÃ©, I thought writers and directors would be different. Fat chance. They're just as loony. In fact, the entertainment industry as a whole is one giant dysfunctional family. Everyone's terrifiedâof their own failure, or of everyone else's successâand as a general rule, you can assume that everyone lies about everything. (Have you ever looked at an actor's rÃ©sumÃ©âat the bottom, under
? Speaks three languages. Black belt in martial arts. Rides horses and motorcycles. Juggling and acrobatics. The truth is, you're lucky if they can drive a fucking car.)
And agents? By and large, we're nothing more than well-paid pimps who represent our pooched-out clients as if they're beautiful young virgins, offering them up to a bunch of jaded johns who know better, but these are the only whores in town. As the saying goes, denial is not a river in Egypt. It's a river in Hollywood, and it runs deep, and brown.
The story I want to tell you involves, among other things, a screenwriter whose career is fading out more than it's fading in, a billionaire's wife, and a murderâwhich means, of course, there's also a cop. Plus, the story has one other thing going for it. It's true.
Would I lie to you?
It starts at the Grill, in Beverly Hills, on a breathlessly hot September day, and if you've never been there, or if you've spent the last ten years or so on Mars, the Grill is
place to go for lunch if you want to eyeball a Who's Who of the biggest power brokers in Hollywood. It's a bright, friendly room with white walls, lots of dark wood, and green leather banquettes, a bar on the left as you walk in, and a long row of booths going all the way to the back of the room on your right. These are the power tables, and if Michael, the maÃ®tre d' and manager, puts you at one of them, you can rest assured your place in the pantheon of Hollywood Big Boys is secure. On any given day you can see the likes of Barry Diller, Brian Grazer, or Brad Grey, to name a few familiar names. Star sightings are also not uncommon. Last week, for instance, on the same day, I saw Sophia Loren
You'll also run into most of the top lawyers and agents in the film and television businessâguys who aren't necessarily household names but who wield enormous clout in the industry. Let's just say if a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in the Grill at one-fifteen on a Thursday afternoon, he'd probably take half the Jews and three quarters of the heaviest hitters in town with him. I'm exaggerating, but you get my meaning.
Anyway, I'm sitting in a booth here at the Grill waiting for my client Bobby Newman to show up. Typically, he's late. I call it Newman Standard Time.
Bobby's a screenwriter, and I invited him to lunch to read him the riot act. He was supposed to turn in a first-draft screenplay to the producer, Brian Grazer, almost six weeks ago (the studio is getting extremely impatient, as this isn't the first time he's stiffed them). Brian is threatening to breach his deal, and I'm getting sick to death of making up bullshit excuses for him. I've got to do business with these people on behalf of a couple of dozen other clients, and I'm starting to lose my credibility (which, coming from an agent, might sound like an oxymoron, with the emphasis on the moron part, but let's face itâif you lose your credibility in Hollywood, what've you got left?).
As long as I'm waiting, I may as well tell you a little about Bobby. He grew up a mama's boy on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in extremely comfortable financial circumstances. He was the kind of smart-ass kid who'd turn you in for passing around dirty pictures in class. When he was eleven years old, four sixth-graders cornered him in the school bathroom and held him down, and each boy dropped his pants and sat on little Bobby's face. You'd like to think that, after what the other kids did to him in the bathroom, Bobby went out, pumped up at the gym, learned to fight, and individually sought out each kid and beat the shit out of him. If you were writing it (which, I suppose you could argue, is what Bobby's been doing ever since), that's what you'd want to see. The trouble is, you don't get to invent your life, at least not when you're eleven, and more often than not, if you're the kind of kid who's a candidate for an ass facial to begin with, it usually paralyzes you with fear for the rest of your life.
The situation wasn't helped any by the fact that Bobby's mother yanked him out of school that very day, enrolled him in an even more expensive private school the day after, and filed a lawsuit the day after
which the school quickly and quietly settled out of court to the tune of about a hundred thousand dollars, which, unbeknownst to their benefactors, they siphoned out of the scholarship fund.
In his early adolescence, Bobby lost himself in books, and by the time he was fifteen, having grown into a pretty good-looking kid, girls and drugs (pot, mostly) took over, and he started to write short stories about teenage angst. (One of them, entitled “Jew Boy,” was about a kid who's assaulted in a school bathroom by four toughs who take turns sitting on his face. He actually submitted it to
The New Yorker,
and got the standard rejection letter.)
By the time he was a high school senior, he was writing screenplays as well, and because he was sleeping with a girl who wanted to go to NYU film school, Bobby applied too, and got in. Of course, the relationship didn't survive the first semester, and Bobby wound up marrying another girl he met there, from L.A., whose stepfather was a big-shot entertainment lawyer. The day he graduated was the day he headed west to seek his fame and fortune in Hollywood.
The new wife's stepfather got him a job in the mail room at CAA, the marriage lasted all of eighteen months, but by the time it petered out, Bobby was already entrenched. He had a job during the day and, loaded on weed, wrote scripts at night. CAA fired him when they found out he'd submitted a low-budget screenplay to Roger Corman under a forged cover letter from a CAA agent who had no idea who the hell Bobby Newman even was.
You can probably guess what the punch line to
story is. Corman bought the script, and next thing Bobby knew, the agency that had fired him was now the agency representing him. By the time Bobby was thirty, he was making a damn good living as a script doctor, rewriting scripts weak on dialogue and/or story, and, in spite of the fact that he liked to party too much, he maintained a pretty disciplined work schedule.
It was about that time that he had a falling out with his agent at CAA about the quality of the assignments he was getting. I'd been shamelessly courting Bobby for over a year, encouraging him to stop thinking of himself as a script doctor and telling him he'd earned the right to move up to the A list of writers that studios go to with their most important projects.
The year before, I'd changed agencies myself. Like Bobby, I'd started my career in the mail room of a big talent agency. There's no shortage of mail room war stories testifying to what a cutthroat environment it is, so I won't bore you with mine, other than to tell you it compares with the way sled dogs are treated in northern Canada to determine who the alpha males are. (They chain the dogs to a fence with just enough separation so they can't kill each other but close enough so that the snarling, teeth-baring alpha dogs can intimidate the shit out of their more timid fencemates. By a process of elimination, you can pretty quickly determine the lead dog, and if you're not the lead dog, as they say, the view never changes.)
Suffice it to say, the mail room where I got my early training was a dog-eat-dog world. (I think it was that famous alpha male Sam Goldwyn who added, “And no dog's gonna eat me.”)
One of the fundamental problems with working in a big agency is that you often find yourself trapped in conflicts of interestânot so much yours as your clients'.
Let's say, for instance, you represent a young first-time screenwriter who's written a tender, sensitive love story. And let's say, too, that your agency's unhappiest client is some big-shot macho action-adventure type director whose last two movies tanked and he's blamingâwho else?âhis agents. Further, he decides that the way to resuscitate his failing career is to go for a complete change of pace and directâyou guessed itâa tender, sensitive love story. You think Mr. Big Shot's not going to get first crack at your young writer's material, regardless of whether he's the right director for this particular project or not? Do you think the fact that it might not be in the young writer's best interests is of any concern to the agency, given that it perceives its primary obligation to be servicing the needs of its higher-profile client, even if it's at the expense of your young first-time writer?
That, ladies and gentlemen, is your classic conflict of interest, and as an agent, I'd gotten weary of my client's welfare sucking hind tit, as it were, to my employer's.
And because the small but prestigious agency I'm now a partner of always defines its own interests as being those of its clients, I didn't have to blow a lot of smoke up Bobby Newman's ass to get him to dump his agent and sign with me. All I had to do was ask him if he was happy with the attention he was getting and suggest that if he wasn't, a small boutique agency with a blue-chip client roster as short as his grocery list might be more suited to his needs.
Bobby's former agents didn't talk to me for a couple of years, but it's the old story: the jilted wife always blames the other woman for stealing her husband. It never occurs to her that she may have had something to do with driving the poor slob away in the first place. (Speaking of infidelity, did you ever stop to wonder why wives always blame the other woman but husbands always blame their wives?)
After Bobby signed with me, I got him to focus not only on style but on substance as well. He seemed to have a real talent for hard-boiled action-adventure characters, so I encouraged him to develop that aspect of his talent, since that was the kind of writing most producers were looking for. I mean, let's face itâJoel Silver wasn't going to buy a movie about a talking dog who becomes president of the United Statesâwhich happened to be a story Bobby wanted me to peddle to Disney. I told him I didn't think it was a very good idea and that, besides, it wasn't the kind of stuff I wanted him wasting his time on. I suppose I pissed him off, because he didn't talk to me for a couple of weeks or so, but at least he knew I'd tell him the truth, right or wrong. And I guess he came to respect my opinion finally, because to my knowledge, he never finished writing the dog thing and never mentioned it again.
Under my guidance, it didn't take long before Bobby got to the point where he was making a high-six-figure income annually, he'd bought the Hollywood house, and had met his current wife, Vee. Within a year, they were married. He'd made it. He was in the game, and it was his game to lose . . .
Anyway, Bobby finally shows up around twelve forty-five and slides into the booth, telling the waiter he'd like a bottle of the Vine Cliff Chardonnay please, put it in a bucket. Jesus Christ, it's twelve forty-five, he knows I don't drink in the daytime, and he's ordering not a glass but a whole goddamn
of the stuff without even consulting a wine list. He probably has it memorized. And forget about hello-how-are-you or anything even remotely resembling a civilized greeting.
He's barely squirmed his ass into the booth when he starts right off with: “I know you're pissed as hell, but I swear to God I've only got twenty more pages to write, I'll turn it in by the end of the week.”
To which I say, “If you've written twenty pages
I'll kiss your ass in Macy's window,” and immediately Bobby drops the bullshit.
“I'm fucked,” he says. “I got writer's block. I keep rewriting the same six pages over and over again. Every night I lie in bed, I haven't gotten a decent night's sleep in months, I promise I'm not going to even look at 'em, I'm just going to jump ahead to the next scene, and every morning I go to the fucking computer and start all over again. Plus, Vee and I are having these horrible fights, it gets me so upset I start drinking.”
And, as if on cue, the waiter returns with the bottle of wine, and while he's opening it and pouring it out, Bobby tells me, without irony, that he's drinking so much every night it takes him half the morning just to get his head far enough out of his ass to start writing.
Seeing Bobby on the ropes and hoping to lift his spirits, I reach down for a fat manila envelope lying beside me on the banquette and hand it to him. “Read this,” I say.
“What is it?”
“It's Jared Axelrod's next film, it starts shooting six weeks from now in Prague, and it needs a rewrite, which I told him you could deliver in three weeks. You're meeting him tomorrow at two-thirty.”
I say this to Bobby with as much matter-of-fact understatement as I can muster, given the fact that I had to beg Axelrod to take the meeting. And then, because I think it's important to impress Bobby with the urgency of his situation, I also tell him that maybe it'd be nice to get a quick payday before the shit hits the fan on the assignment he's currently pissing down a sinkhole, along with what's left of his career.
Does he thank me? Fat fucking chance. All he does is obsess over how I can think he's capable of rewriting someone else's piece of shit when he can't even get past page six of his own piece of shit. I suggest to him that maybe working on something fresh, something he's not emotionally involved in, will actually be good for him. “Get a little positive reinforcement,” I say. “Actually meet a deadline for a change, put a quick hundred and fifty thousand in the bankâwhere's the downside?”
“The truth is, I'm scared,” Bobby says miserably, and by now he's on his third glass of wine. “I bomb out on a lousy three-week rewrite, I'm totally fucked.”
is,” I tell him, “if you don't get this screenplay finished by the end of the week, we're
So that was lunch.