Everywhere in the world a green light means “go.” That is, everywhere except Hollywood, where a green light means “Take a number, have a seat, the executives will see you shortly. After Eternity.”
Such temporal phenomena permeate every aspect of the entertainment business. Given the molasses movement of time on film sets, production personnel are often heard repeating the koan-like mantra “hurry up and wait.” Hollywood Time goes right up the line to the executive offices at the studios, where, due to some anomaly describable only by physicists, time could quite possible be standing still.
No wonder the entertainment industry fosters such a proclivity for youth, so much time is spent waiting for the phone to ring, that when the call finally comes one could be, say, in one’s early 30s or some other outre age. Recently, my longtime collaborator Jerry Rapp and I, did get the call, in this case from Los Angeles-based media startup helmed by executive producer Tim Scott, late of Comedy Central’s erstwhile series “Let’s Bowl” among other projects. Rapp and I had been digging our own graves so long in Hollywood, we had finally broken through to the other side.
For the better part of a year, my bearded, artfully rumpled colleague and I had been developing Backlot, a series concept that finds two would-be screenwriters who squat a Hollywood studios back lot, live in the sets and wear clothes poached from the wardrobe department, while they angle for the fabled “three picture deal.” They attempt to do this within the walled confines of the studio. Moreover, they can’t leave for fear of never getting back in. It’s “The Player” meets “The Prisoner.”
The idea first occurred to us during the halcyon first years of the millennium. Rapp and I had scripts littering the desks of dozens of studio brass and were shooting a series of short films that would eventually play on Showtime (where, according to our royalty statements, they remain). It was when shooting on the Universal Studios lot that we noticed the craft service trucks, the costumes and the facades of the sets themselves could provide all the food, clothing and shelter we would ever need should our careers go south. We had little idea at the time that Backlot, in many ways, would become the episodic TV version of our lives.
Besides Backlot, Rapp and I had only developed one other television show within the studio context, but it was with a behemoth of the trade, a gentleman named Tommy Schlamme. He was a tough character and had every right to be he explained, having grown up Jewish in Texas with the name Tommy Schlamme. He was part of the triumvirate behind the “West Wing,” flanked by TV rainmakers John Wells and Aaron Sorkin. A dapper fellow, tall, bearded and often donned in sharp black suits with a strand of wooden beads around his wrist, to us he was gravitas personified. His office on the Warner Bros. lot has more Emmys than can be counted in a glance — the expanse of little gold angels actually exceeds the scope of one’s peripheral vision.
For several weeks last year, Rapp and I had been wrestling a book property into a workable TV series for Schlamme’s shingle. It was an anthology of LA stories penned by an author who had been a successful screenwriter before opting out for cooler climes in the pages of the New Yorker. The book had a single recurring character that Rapp and I decided would be Virgil-like presence taking us through the Inferno of Screenland — this is, of course, before I realized Hollywood was a spiritual waiting room. Schlamme was unsure about how we would intersect all the characters and preserve the shattered timeline of the original text — that is until I improvised a diagram on the back of a notebook, which was a really just a spiral with a line through it representing “time” or some crap like that.
“That’s it!” Schlamme roared. “That’s the series!” We were all impressed with his conviction, received hearty pats on the back and were sent scampering back to our offices where we would try to figure out what the fuck the diagram meant. In the end, it was for naught. As soon as Rapp and I had cooked up a credible meaning for the diagram the show was shelved. Schlamme had quit the “West Wing” and focused on other projects. We went back into our perennial scramble to get a film made — any film. We had half a dozen scripts between us but weren’t precious about any of them. One can’t be. What goes on the page seldom gets to the screen after all the notes, rewrites and general overhauls a script endures prior to production. Rapp and I once wrote a spec script about a fruit fly that gets reincarnated as man, but still has a fruit fly’s 24-hour lifespan. Our agent had us rewrite the script 11 times before it would leave their office. At one point he suggested that we put a “blue cape” on our protagonist “to make him standout” as if being a reincarnated fruit fly wasn’t enough.
“The only attachment one should have to a script is an actor,” Rapp would sagely remind. Attaching an actor, that is getting someone recognizable to agree to play a part and then attracting studio interest (read: money) by virtue of the attachment, is par for the course when setting up a project. Unfortunately, our early attempts to attach actors to our scripts were utter failures since, at the time, we had little access to them. The best we could do was keep our eyes open for stray thespians milling about Hollywood and hope to strike up a conversation. Due to the concentration of actors in the area, this method proved moderately effective as when we bumped into Meatloaf coming out of a movie theater.
“Excuse me, uh, Mr. Loaf,” Rapp began. I was mortified.
“Call me Meat,” the singer and actor replied.
“No, just Meat,” the singer corrected.
“We’ve got a project, Meat, my partner Daedalus and I…”
“That’s weird a name.”
“Uh, yeah, he’s over there,” Rapp gestured to me. From a few paces back I waved. “And we think that you would be just –”
“Yeah, yeah — send it to my agent.”
“Great. Um, who’s your agent?” Rapp persisted, but Mr. Loaf had already made his exit.
Meanwhile, I had gotten in with some B-list publicists with a roster of C-list clients and was frequently invited to parties as an accredited representative of the media. It was at such a party that Rachael Costa (my then girlfriend and de facto producer) and I met Fabio, the romance novel cover guy gone “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” spokes-model.
Our conversation quickly turned to business and soon he asked for and received my producer’s card. Finally, we had an in with, if not an actor, a margarine icon, but an icon nevertheless. Later Rapp and I ransacked our back catalog for a project that might be appropriate for Fabio. We had nothing, but made up some tripe about Chippendales dancers on a goodwill tour of Soviet Russia in the 80s and called it a Chip Off the Old Block.
A few days later Fabio called Costa and set up a meeting. Seeing as she was our producer, Rapp and I thought nothing of the fact that Fabio hadn’t invited us as well and waited for word in the swelter of my Venice Beach sublet (my absentee sub-landlord had gone to Germany for a three month stay, finally returning three years later). Within an hour, Costa called from the bathroom of some tony Beverly Hills eatery. Her meeting with Fabio was turning into a date and he was trying to get her to take a motorcycle ride with him to his place to look at his 99 other motorcycles.
“But does he like the pitch?” I asked.
“Are you not listening to me? Fabio wants to take me on a motorcycle ride. This is the part where you say, ‘Abort mission!’”
“Okay, okay, abort mission.”
In all the hullabaloo to attach a name, any name, to a project, I had inadvertently pimped my girlfriend. To Fabio. Rapp said it was just a sign of the times, or specifically, the End Times, when a smart guy like me could be duped by a six-foot-three hood ornament. “Well, there goes the seventh seal,” he said. “Hello, apocalypse.”
Fortunately, our attempts to attach an actor didn’t end with Fabio trying to seduce my ex-girlfriend. In fact, they picked up speed with Ross Martin, an excitable then New York-based producer who had worked with Spike Lee and was, among other things, a published poet (one critic described him as a “postmodern Hardy Boy of poetry”). Martin set up classy offices in Los Angeles, was animated, brimmed with energy and believed, it seemed, that there was no such thing as “No,” just different shades of “Yes.” A go-getter from conception, he was everything one could want in an independent film producer or, for that matter, a cartoon character.
In grammar school Martin had made a list of all he wanted to achieve in life (marriage, career and sundry other grown-up notions), which he kept tacked to the back of his door of his office on The Lot at Formosa and Santa Monica Blvd. Most of the list had already been scratched off. I hadn’t made such a list in grammar school, but if I did, being a Hollywood hack wasn’t on it. Martin knew my misgivings about the trade and resolved to produce our script Model Citizen, a dark period comedy about the makers of the 1950s educational films. Within a couple weeks, over lunch at the Lot’s commissary, Martin asked “How do you feel about Noah Wyle?”
“Dr. Carter from ER.”
“Oh, Noah Wyle. The guy on ER. Right. I thought you meant the other guy,” I said.
“What other guy?”
“Daed doesn’t have cable,” Rapp interceded.
“He’s not on cable. ER is on NBC,” Ross said, searching our faces.
“He’s not on cable?”
“No, he’s on ER, which is on NBC. The network.”
“Good, because I don’t have cable,” I said.
“You’ve never seen the show have you? It’s about doctors.”
“Dr. Carter, right?” Rapp said. “Love that guy.”
“Oh, that guy. I love him too.”
“You love him as the lead of our movie?” Ross baited.
“What’s not to love?” Rapp replied.
“I think I can get a script to him,” Ross continued. “He’s my wife’s cousin.”
Miraculously, Ross did get our script to Noah Wyle, by who knows what means, and the actor apparently found some kismet between himself and the squeaky clean main character, a student teacher who goes into the world of educational films and comes out a hairs breadth left of being a serial killer. He attached to play the lead.
Wyle, in a word, was shiny. All stars are. The glow is usually attributed to some “inner light” but really it’s just about being scrubbed and polished such that one better reflects the pitiless Hollywood sun. Stars, of course, are less solar than lunar and wax and wane in the public light. That said, Wyle was something of a mensch. He wasn’t actually a doctor (though played one on TV), but retained something of his character’s bedside manner. Rapp once asked him to look at a mole on his back. Wyle was entirely self-made, an autodidact who was easy with conversation and fond of arcane trivia.
“You know, the economy in Holland was once based on tulips,” he mentioned apropos of nothing, thumbing through a copy of Variety, while we waited for a meeting to begin at New Line.
“Much of the economy in Northern California is based on a plant too,” I rejoined. Wyle just stared quizzically back at me as Rapp rolled his eyes from across the conference table.
Despite Wyle’s attachment, the project floundered. Martin eventually took a job at MTV and Wyle went on to another season of ER and then appeared as “The Librarian” for TNT. Wyle was a good attachment, but perhaps not the best for a business that sells of the backs of marquee names, which he was not and apparently being the only original male lead on a decade-old network juggernaut was not enough.
Inappropriate attachments are a hazard for any screen-bound project. It’s very tempting to sacrifice what’s best for the work for what’s best for one’s career (in Hollywood these are two mutually exclusive concepts). Your World War II opus about an American P.O.W. discovering the humanity of his German captor quickly shifts to the Pacific theater when Toshiro Mifune gets in the elevator with you.
This was evident when Rapp and I were pitching a version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost for the big screen. Word on the Walk of Fame was that origin stories, that is plots depicting the genesis of a particular hero or villain (think Batman Begins) were hot. Our pal at Schlamme’s office, A.J. Marcantonio, had just set up a pitch at Disney, wherein he had to say little more than “Zeus” and they cut a check. Figuring the classics were tapped, Rapp and I reasoned that the Bible was next until The Passion of the Christ locked up the market. Finally, we settled on Milton’s tome about the birth of Beelzebub and found ourselves pitching it to, of all people, the producers of the Starksy and Hutch screen adaptation. They were interesting gents, a boisterous father and son team, who reveled in busting our balls for sport.
“We can get it to Snoop Dog, we just worked with him.”
“For Paradise Lost? Who would he play?” I asked, incredulous.
“Who cares, we can get to Snoop Dog.”
“He’s got a point,” Rapp said.”
Our take on Paradise Lost fizzled when we discovered that Warner Bros. had been developing its own Paradise Lost project for the past five years. Rapp thought we could get a jump on the sequel, Paradise Regained, but I suggested we add the blue cape to the bug movie instead.
By far the most bizarre attachment issue we encountered was when a producer friend of ours has secured the film rights to a novelty figurine but was at a loss for a story.
“What’s special about the character?” I asked during an exploratory meeting.
“He glows in the dark. I don’t know, is that special? And he’s got the one big eye — so, you know, he probably sees shit or something. You think there’s a story there?”
“Does he have any special powers?”
“I don’t know. Do you think we need them?” the producer asked, a tremor of worry coming into his voice. He buzzed his assistant. “Ask that asshole if the action figure has any special powers,” he turned back to us. “This little fucker better have some special powers.”
“Dude, we can always make up some special powers, you know.”
“Not contractually,” the producer spat. He then received word from his assistant that the figurine’s special power was that it “glowed in the dark,” to which he responded, “Glows in the dark? Great. So does every kid in Chernobyl. Wait a minute…”
A quiet fell over the room as we searched each other’s eyes as if in a scene from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Finally, the producer called out “Dibs! I get the Chernobyl story. I said it first.”
Oftentimes, a company is owned by a star — what Variety calls a “vanity shingle.” It’s the job of the development staffs to mine the quarry of pitches for roles suitable for their bosses. Such was the case when Rapp and I were casually asked by an executive at Maguire Entertainment if we had any buddy movie pitches appropriate for Toby Maguire and his pal Leo DiCaprio. Of course we did. Everyone who could say the words “box office” did. Without hesitating, Rapp and I began rifling through any and every story between us that featured more than a single male lead — sometimes improvising new characters on the spot. Finally, we landed on Backlot, our buddy flick about a couple of hacks squatting the sets of a Hollywood studio. The exec thought the premise had legs, but believed Spiderman and his Titanic chum were too famous to make the film plausible.
“You need nobodies,” the executive suggested. “Like you guys. You guys are nobodies.”
“Totally,” Rapp agreed.
“I’m just saying consider it,” the exec continued.
“But then we wouldn’t be nobodies anymore,” I said, looking toward Rapp.
Something sparked. We immediately conspired with our ally Ross Martin to shoot a promo for Backlot as if it were a documentary and opted to play the disheveled writer characters ourselves. A DVD of the Backlot promo circulated throughout the business and word was people thought it was real, that we really had been squatting a lot. The promo eventually found its way to the desk of Tim Scott, a grand man with generous Midwestern bonhomie, who had just left a major television production company to start his own independent shingle.
Scott and his partners leapt on the Backlot concept, created a budget, schedules, courted cable TV outlets, but not without first asking:
“Well, we first pitched it as a vehicle for Toby and Leo…” Rapp began, but was interrupted.
“Over-exposed.” The word sounded like the buzzer on a game show.
“…But we attached ourselves instead,” Rapp continued.
“You attached yourself to your own project?” Scott considered this a moment, then smiled broadly. “Brilliant. Let’s do this.”
“When do we start?”
It’s a popular parlor game in Northern California to criticize Los Angeles, like a prettier but vapid kid sister, who gets all the attention and pony rides on her birthday. I couldn’t count the times some wag thought he was being witty by expressing his “condolences” after learning about my time in LA. Then there’s the facile conflation of Hollywood and Hell, which many are wont to make (the Devil doesn’t live in Hollywood, he lives in Washington, but you knew that). If Hollywood were to be any locale in Judeo-Christian mythology it would be Purgatory — a place where one waits and waits and waits. And then is finally judged.
What I’ve learned, however, is that one needn’t wait entirely in Los Angeles. Emancipated by a 310 area code cell phone and the geographical anonymity of email, Rapp and I can giddily slum it in the North Bay, biding our time, warming our hands by the glow of our green light — waiting for the call.