Creeping over the Century City skyline, the sun’s harsh rays bathe my ’66 Ford Mustang as I take the 10 towards Robertson. Ray-Bans I’ve owned since my first week in LA shield my eyes from the glare and the breeze rushes over the windshield, tousling my already unkempt hair.
If this cinematic moment was captured on 35 mm film, it would appear liberating, a sun-drenched endorsement of SoCal living. Nothing could be further from the truth. Under the crushing weight of the CO2 hovering above the LA Basin, this drive couldn’t be more claustrophobic and suffocating.
The farther east I travel, the thicker the smog becomes. It engulfs me, filling my lungs with every labored breath. Fighting fire with fire, I hold a cigarette between my lips and light the tip with the DuPont. Combining the pollution of LA with tobacco and nicotine may seem like overkill, but I’m nothing if not the author of my own story.
Asphyxiation or no, I hate traveling east of the 405. The farther I am from the ocean, the worse everything becomes. By the time Santa Monica merges into Brentwood and Culver City, I’m at the mercy of everything LA has to offer. Beyond the city limits of Los Angeles, there’s a high risk of contracting terminal boredom. Nothing interesting ever happened from traveling that far east. As much as I dislike Los Angeles, the stakes everywhere else are so low it’s depressing.
Living in Santa Monica affords me the advantage of simultaneously being part of something bigger than myself, in the entertainment industry, while still being a passive spectator from the comfort of the minimalist oasis I’ve created. Unfortunately, time passes and change follows in its wake. My oasis is as susceptible to the ravages of time as anything else. Construction on the Expo Light Rail that will bridge the divide between downtown and Santa Monica is nearing completion. Once it’s operational, it’ll exacerbate the trend of Los Angeles encroaching on Santa Monica as the barrier between the two becomes all but nonexistent.
I turn west on Wilshire and in the space of ten minutes I reach the STA offices, find parking, ride the elevator to the eighth floor, and take a seat across the desk from my agent, Dave Chaikin.
“I love this fucking script, Dante!” he yells, slamming a closed fist on the desk between each word, a poor man’s Ari Gold in a rich man’s Armani Collezioni suit.
Once upon a time, Dave was a fledgling literary agent in search of the screenplay that would make him a major player. Dave would have me believe the moment he read Galaxy Hoppers, a hundred and twenty-page tome by Hollywood unknown Dante Lee, it was love at first sight. He championed it, creating enough buzz that there was a bidding war, and then sold it to Global Studio Media, marking the beginning of the end of my screenwriting career.
“I have to know,” he says, “what—after all this fucking time—compelled you to put pen to paper?”
“Insomnia,” I joke. “I’ve been in a bit of a slump, seemed like it was time to get out of it.”
“A slump?” he asks, dripping with concern. “What kind of slump are we talking about? Addiction? Depression?”
“Something like that.”
“Wish you’d said something sooner. You know you can talk to me about this stuff. Say the word and I’ll hook you up with my wife’s shrink. She’s got a pill for everything. Uppers, downers. I never know what I’m coming home to. Point is, she’s never nailed as many auditions in her life as she has since she started seeing him. There’s been a real creative renaissance at the Chaikin household. I’m sure with the right dosage, you too can be on the path to productivity.”
“I don’t think I could be any more productive.” I gesture to the screenplay on his desk, the one I’ve affectionately named Skylar and the Ninja Ghosts, and tell him, “Writing this was my Prozac.”
“Does that mean there’s more where this came from?”
“It’s looking good.”
“Music to my fucking ears.” He points at the screenplay, his eyes feverish with greed. “We are going to have so many buyers for this, you have no idea. I can’t even begin to tell you. This is exactly the kind of movie the studios want to make right now.”
“I have some conditions.”
Hesitant, he shifts in his chair, forcing a smile with all the sardonicism he can spare. “Name them.”
“No guns. If they want rewrites, they can’t include guns. Under any circumstances.”
Galaxy Hoppers was conceived and written as a high-concept swashbuckling fantasy/sci-fi blockbuster. When Global bought it, they demanded the final set piece be structured around an epic shootout in an abandoned space station. I’ve never liked guns but they didn’t care. When I refused to redraft, they brought another writer onboard. Galaxy Hoppers came out eighteen months ago, grossing a billion dollars. I’ve been riding high on my share of the blood money ever since. As has Dave.
He smiles. “No guns, got it. I can work with that.”
“And all rewrites have to go through me.”
“No problem! Anything else?”
“Why are you so happy about this?”
“Because I’m psychic.”
“There’s already a buyer, isn’t there?”
“There might already be a buyer, yes. And I might have already anticipated your conditions. And they might have already signed off on them and asked to meet you.”
“I’ll tell you, but I have a condition of my own.”
“You have to keep an open mind.”
“When has my mind ever been anything but?”
Dave laughs, tries to rein it in. “Sorry, that was rude.” He laughs again. Harder. “Oh, you’re a funny guy.”
I scowl. “My mind is open. Who’s the meeting with?”
Then I realize. “Oh no. No, no, no. Global?”
Dave’s reluctance confirms my suspicion.
“I don’t want to work with Global again. Not after last time.”
“That wasn’t one of your conditions.”
“It was implied.”
“Open mind, Dante!” Dave booms, before recalibrating his tone to resemble that of a human being. “Look, this won’t be like last time. I’ve been dealing with Adrian Kyle. He’s a good guy and he’s developed some great stuff.”
Dave’s not wrong. Throughout his ten-year career in studio development, Adrian Kyle’s career has been all about finding the next Star Wars or Indiana Jones. He’s walked the line between art and commerce with aplomb, nurturing quality, original projects and guiding them towards box office success. At a time when sequels, remakes, and adaptations are the grease that keep the cogs of Hollywood turning, that’s no small feat.
“Dave, I don’t want to get back into bed with Global.”
“You may not know this, but Adrian fought Ted on the gunfight.”
“Fought and lost. Fool me once—”
“He’s been promoted since then. He’s practically autonomous.”
“Global might not even exist this time next month.”
“Global isn’t going anywhere. They’ve been around since the dawn of time.”
“You say that now…”
“And in a month, I’ll be saying ‘I told you so.’” Dave adds, “Adrian thought you may have some reservations and he wants to meet you so he can personally lay your mind to rest.”
“What makes him think he’ll succeed where others have failed?”
“The guy doesn’t suffer self-doubt.” Dave leans forward. “Will you take the meeting?”
I stand up to leave. “I’ll think about it.”
“That’s great, Dante. Think about it. But don’t think too long. Not many other studios in this town are going to sign off on your conditions.”
“Then we won’t sell,” I shrug.
He scolds me with a look, we say our goodbyes, and I take my leave, passing a small army of slick-haired, Hugo Boss suit-wearing agents on my way to the elevator, descending to the underground parking garage. Flickering fluorescent lights guide me to my Mustang, a lone, rust-encrusted classic in a sea of brand new BMWs. Alice—an associate of mine who’s known to many in the industry as the mythical “Sasha McLean”—leans against my car, wearing her shoulder-length bleach blonde hair up, affecting the appearance of a hardboiled entertainment blogger.
“How’d it go?” I ask, unlocking the car for us both to enter.
“I kept to the script. Played Leibowitz the video, told him I wouldn’t publish a thing as long as he signed the letter of resignation and gave me the exclusive.”
“I had to work overtime convincing him I wasn’t bluffing. Fade Out’s reputation for not trafficking in stolen information precedes it. I told him there are worse things in life than crossing ethical lines. Like, you know, rape.”
“There’s something you should know.”
“At one point he started begging, pleading, offering exclusive scoops if we destroyed the video. He was muttering about rumors he’d heard around the office. Something about the hacks and sexual harassment allegations no one knows about.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him it wasn’t a negotiation.” She smiles proudly.
“This is why I pay you the big bucks.”
“You don’t pay me at all.”
“Only because you won’t let me.”
“A girl’s gotta have a hobby.”
“So he signed it?”
“There and then.” My phone pings and Alice smiles coyly. “That’s probably him now.”
I check the screen. She’s right. An email confirms Mike has signed the letter and will be vacating Global effective immediately.
I turn to Alice. “Good work. Thank you.”
“It was my pleasure,” she says. “How’d the meeting with Dave go?”
“He’s found a buyer.”
I don’t react.
“Yeah.” I add, “The development guy there wants to meet me, make me see the light. But I think not.”
“I think you should.”
“Because you have a teeny, tiny glimmer of happiness in your eyes that I’ve never seen before.”
“You don’t think I’m happy?” I say, deadpan.
“That depends. How many times have you been to Cabana this week?”
“That’s a hostile question.”
“Take the meeting.”
“You realize, if I become a big name screenwriter again, I’m going to have to close Fade Out?”
“It would be morally questionable not to.”
“You wouldn’t be disappointed?”
“Not in the slightest. It’s like I said, you deserve to be happy. And we both know you didn’t come all the way to Los Angeles to be a blogger. Take the fucking meeting.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Alice leans over, kisses me on the cheek, and opens her door.
“I’ll give you a ride.”
“I’m good. My shift doesn’t start ’til ten.” With that, she exits the car.
“I’ll be in touch.”
“I know you will,” she replies with endearing moxie before shutting the door behind her.
I pull a MacBook Air out of my glove compartment and write a new article for Fade Out: global vp of finance mike leibowitz resigns amidst sexual assault scandal. Hitting publish, the article goes live. I reward myself with a smoke and turn the key in the ignition, the exhaust pipe choking out a thick black cloud that fills the garage.
* * *
A woman in a tailored business suit sits alone at a picnic table in Roxbury Park. From behind Prada sunglasses, she cautiously scans her environment, running the pearls of her necklace between the tips of her fingers. With each passing cyclist, jogger, and family, her posture stiffens, regarding them with equal suspicion. This is no less true when she spies me approaching.
Her name is May Torres. She’s a partner at Olsen, Kim, and Serkis—the firm representing Blaine Colby.
I take a seat on the other side of the picnic table and we look in opposite directions without once acknowledging the other.
“You said you have a smoking gun?” she asks.
“What kind of smoking gun are we talking about?”
I load the video on my phone and slide it across the picnic table to May. She is simultaneously disgusted and elated by what she sees.
She turns to face me, handing the phone back. “How did you get this?”
“Does it matter?”
“It does if it’s inadmissible in court.”
“Legal advice isn’t my specialty. But if it was—”
“You’d tell me to use it as leverage, get a settlement.”
“I didn’t watch five seasons of Damages for no reason.”
“If only Glenn Close was down for doing TV fifteen years earlier, she could have saved me two hundred thou in tuition,” May sighs. “How much do you want for it?”
“It’s all yours.”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. Just a condition.”
“There’s always a condition.”
“Only a small one.”
“I’ll bite. What is it?”
“Drop Global from the suit.”
“Where I come from, that’s not a condition, it’s a catch. An eight-figure catch.”
“An hour ago Mike Leibowitz resigned. Global is unaware of his and Harris’s extracurricular activities.”
“I don’t think my client will agree to your ‘condition.’”
“The hacks are crippling Global. You sue them and win, maybe their parent company cuts its losses and hundreds of people lose their jobs. Or, you sue them and lose because the full weight of Global’s legal team crushes the suit and Blaine gets diddly. Leibowitz and Harris are good for low seven figures. Your client’s going to be just fine.”
“You make a compelling argument.”
“We have a deal?”
“How do you want to play this?”
“Phone your client. When he signs off on dropping Global, the video’s all yours.”
Her eyes narrow. “How do I know you’re not working for Global?”
I upload the video as an email attachment and show her the screen. “All ready to send the moment you hang up,” I promise with a smile.
She nods, warming to the exchange. “Who are you?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I’m an entertainment journalist,” I tell her, wry.
“You’re right. I don’t believe you.” May picks up her phone and dials Blaine Colby. While it rings, she turns to me. “This was all very clandestine. We could have just met in my office.”
“I’m all about the atmosphere.”
* * *
Driving into the beginning of a sunset, the return journey to my apartment is far more pleasant than this morning’s commute. The toxic fumes that consume Los Angeles wane the closer I get to Santa Monica and, with every passing mile, my lungs relax.
Arriving home, I set up shop on the balcony with the laptop and a Scotch and draft a news item for Fade Out, titled global sexual assault scandal: plaintiff drops global from suit, focuses on leibowitz and harris. After hitting publish, an involuntary smile creeps across my face. As much as selling Galaxy Hoppers may have been my damnation, Fade Out has almost definitely been my salvation.
Inhaling a deep breath, I draw the ocean air in through my nose, and light up. For the first time today, I can breathe.
I dial Dave. “What’s up, Dante?” he says.
“Set up the meeting.”