Bob Stanwick drove his rental car down a small street that opened up onto a major thoroughfare, which he hoped this time was Melrose Avenue. It took a while to break into the traffic but he did so after about 5 minutes and relaxed for a while. The studio was up at the end of the street, according to the GPS. He passed Paramount and got a little surge of joy. At least he was probably driving in the right direction. If he passed under the Hollywood Freeway again or landed up on Beverly Boulevard he had gone wrong again. It was so difficult driving here, so much to get distracted by. The journey from the Hotel should have taken about 25 minutes according to the SatNav, but so far he’d been driving in circles for the last 45. Luckily he’d left an hour to get there.
The weather in Los Angeles was cooler today after the recent rain, but it was warming up again, humid. It was early, give it time. The buttery concrete street was lined with pompoms of palm trees on their tall stalks, a constant reminder he was in the City of Angels. The traffic moved along smoothly and it wasn’t very heavy, but as a Brit he was unaccustomed to driving on this side of the road and this Lincoln town car was much bigger and more powerful than his own at home.
The nondescript shops and offices surrounding the studio were unexpected. Also the fact that all the “Hollywood” studios weren’t in the same street was a surprise, although logically why would they be? It looked like a beige stone industrial area, which he supposed wryly it was. It was disappointing, not massively, but just a little. He was hoping for a bit more glitz.
The almost churchlike gate of the studios came into view and he followed another car up the ramp to the gate and waited patiently behind it. It was like he was waiting to get into a factory, and it was he supposed literally a factory of dreams.
But here it was, Maine Street Studios, so named after the birthplace of the founding Spindler brothers, a road in New York State that led nowhere, as the doubtless delicately embroidered life story goes. "But if the road did lead somewhere", they say, "It led home". Ugh! Bob couldn't stand this kind of schmaltz. There was the big cultural chasm between the British and the Americans right there, he thought.
At the end of every film, unnecessary cloying sentiment, like taffy or peanut butter glued to the roof of your mouth. Americans, as a rule, love it. The Brits, also as a rule, hate it, or at least pretend to. There were exceptions that proved the rule of course, but that was where Bob stopped thinking about it because he was pulling up to the security gate and introducing himself to the portly security guard.
The guard wished him good morning and enquired after his business at the studio this morning. Bob said he had an appointment with the Spindler Brothers and having checked the list on his clipboard with all the speed and efficiency of a sloth on tranquilisers, the guard approved him, opened the barrier and waved Bob through indicating the visitor’s parking lot with a single chubby finger.
The studios were old, possibly more than 50 years old, which for Hollywood was positively prehistoric. The lot was bought from Starlight Pictures in the 60s, the old silent movie stages demolished and these huge creamy stone boxes erected in their place. Apparently the old Starlight stages were not ornate turn of the century buildings but nasty crumbly building violations. They were not missed. The lot contained four giant sound stages and about 10 smaller stages for independent films. While it was not as big as Warner, Sony or Paramount, Maine Street did okay and always would. The brothers were very shrewd businessmen.
The sun was beating down hard as he parked and got his stuff out of the car, and for the first time since he'd arrived in California, he felt the weight of it pressing down on him. There had been a comforting heavy rain when he flew in, reminding him of home, but now the full weight of the Californian sun was on him.
Sunshine didn't have the same quality over here as it did at home in England. It was almost tangible, like a liquid that flowed between the buildings, reflected from every surface and filled in every shadow with light. No wonder they started making films here back in the day. The concrete and bricks of the buildings absorbed the light and seemed to glow. At night the glow faded so slowly that early evening was as warm as the day. Summer in England was like that, except there was more space around the buildings, so the heat and the glow of the day faded faster. This was a hot climate, he reminded himself, ruefully realising he wouldn’t be wearing either of the coats he'd brought with him. He always brought too many clothes with him on these trips, but that is the English disease.
As well as the heavy light of the sun, Bob Stanwick also felt the weight of his Britishness. There was something about this place that made him feel like a caricature of an Englishman. He didn't wear a bowler hat ever, but he did feel conspicuous every time he spoke. It was all he could to stop himself prefacing every sentence with “I say!” and ending with “chaps”. He hoped the feeling would pass.
He used to be on the chubby side, but since he got his weight under control he was sturdily built but not fat. His hair was light brown, almost blonde and his prominent cheekbones followed two creases down the sides of his face, past the corners of his mouth to his chin. His hair was usually worn short and the tips bleached naturally in the sun, leading to accusations of having highlights put in artificially. His eyes were blue grey with a smile in them and his mouth was thin and straight, prone to a humorous smirk when amused which was often. His rolled up shirtsleeves revealed a fine blonde hair over his forearms.
He was finally here and he was very grateful for that. He hated flying. Every rise and fall of the deck of the plane had made his stomach lurch. Worse still he'd had to hold onto his breakfast and distract himself for a full 10 hours and 43 minutes, which is challenging. It was as much as he could do to drink beer after beer and try not to think about crashing into a mountain or turning into a ball of flame over the Atlantic. Fortunately the row of seats where he was sitting was empty so fortunately he could lie down to try to sleep, even if he didn't actually get any. Honestly it wasn’t a bad flight all in all, could have been a lot worse.
It was odd, he thought, that turbulence was no worse than the bucking and weaving of a car on the motorway and yet because he was so aware of the fact he was 40,000 feet or so above the ground it felt much more violent and unreasonable. He chided himself for being such a baby about it, but what could he do? He was scared of flying and that was all there was to it. But how would his teenage daughter feel if she knew how scared he was. He found it easy to be brave around her and in fact as a rule he was a very strong-minded person, but he had to admit that about this one thing he was very weak. He truly hated that.
He found it easy to be strong, but he found it so hard to be weak. That was a really good line he thought and he'd written it down in the little black notebook he carried in his jacket pocket. As a writer he never travelled anywhere without his notebook, because ideas would vanish, be forgotten as easily as they came to you and he couldn’t have that. Experience told him that he'd never in his life remembered anything that he thought would be easy to recall. Ideas had to be committed to paper or they evaporated like rain. He'd written that down too.
Coming into land over LA in the dusk the city had resembled a dark spiky electric pizza, like a huge alien ship that had crash-landed and dug itself into the desert. Thin spires of buildings glittered with numerous tiny lights, like sequins glittering on a black ball gown.
The horizon in one direction, towards the sun, was fringed with the tiny almost invisible stalks of palm trees, looking from a distance as if they were floating in the air. The sunset was spectacular, but Bob remembered that smog was the reason for the eye-popping orange glow and not any kind of natural beauty. How much more plain a metaphor for Los Angeles could you get? Beautiful but fake.
Bob locked the car and walked across the lot following signs to main reception. The offices at Maine Street were one of the few remaining buildings from the Starlight era, built in the '30s or '40s he guessed using his scant knowledge of architecture. Inside the cool lobby the furnishings and decorations said "late '90s business plush" from every corner; soft sofas, wooden tables, hidden neon up-lighters circling the ceiling. How was it that style always skipped a decade? And taste.
He only had a few seconds to look around before his American agent Rachel Fine called to him and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek and a firm hug. “Bobby! So good to see you, darling. You made it okay, I know you hate the flying. You okay?”
Bob loved Rachel, she was his proxy Jewish mother. Back in the UK he'd called her as soon as he'd heard there was a potential problem with his film. She’d told him to get on the first plane out here and they’d sort it out with the Spindler Brothers, whom she called “The Brothers Grimm”. The situation of an almost identical film coming out from the same studio was almost unheard of, but something had gotten screwed up.
But Rachel was a good agent and he trusted her. Having successfully forced his first two novels onto an initially unreceptive American public and she'd quickly got him the job to turn one of those novels into a screenplay, starting a change of career into screenwriting.
Now Rachel looked relaxed, confident and reeked deliciously as always of L’heure Bleu, she also looked edgy and there was the faintest whiff of the single cigarette she'd had time to have before Bob arrived.
Rachel was in her mid to late forties, an ash blonde who always dressed obsessively in black and gold. Today she was wearing a very nice black suit and a gold Rolex, bracelets and rings, at least two on each finger, and a thick chain necklace. Her eyes were a dark, bitter chocolate colour and her face always made him think that 20 years ago she would have been naturally beautiful. Bob guessed that apart from her smoking she looked after herself and had yet to employ a surgeon to keep that bloom alive.
Rachel shooed him quickly into a conference room and closed the door conspiratorially and they sat down on a sofa that ran down the wall beside a deeply burnished oval conference table. Rachel opened a window and by the time Bob had put his briefcase on the floor and sat down she had lit up a Silk Cut and was blowing smoke rings through the gap.
"Ah, god, that's better. You look well. Are you, sweetie?"
"I'm fine, Rachel. You look well too, but that's not why we're here, is it? And should you be doing that in here."
Rachel smiled with her eyes while dragging on the cigarette. As she spoke the smoke came out of here mouth in punctuated puffs. She ignored the second question. "I called them this morning and things have moved on. There's no easy way to say this sweetheart so I’m just going to say it . . . they want to can your film. Well, the exact opposite, they don't want it to be in a can at all, they don't want to make it."
Bob was speechless. He'd expected this as a possibility, but to have it happen so soon was a blow and he felt all the wind going out of him. He tried to smile but the muscles on his face wouldn't work.
"I know, sweetie, it's a bitch, but that's not all of it. You ARE going to be making a film. They've made a deal with Mark Poland."
Bob was beginning to recover but that name sent all the wind out of him again. "What?"
"Yeah, I know, the son of a bitch stole your idea, well technically they came up with the SAME idea, but hey! If you end up making a film with him, wouldn't it be just as good? I know, I know, it's not your film, but it is a film. I've told them you'll accept probably but you just have to work some things out," she puffed, "but seriously sweetie I strongly advise you to take the deal they have on the table. It's like this. They've already paid you 60% of your fee, which as I told you is part of the standard development fees amounting to 2.5% of the budget, right?"
Bob found his voice, but it was a croak. "Well, yes I suppose so . . .”
"You have, trust me. All that remains is the final draft of the script and then we were due to start principle photography early next year, right?" She put the cigarette out on the windowsill having puffed all the goodness out of it in about two minutes. She made as if to take another one out of the packet, but she caught herself and put it back.
"Right . . ." Bob wasn't sure where this was going and he couldn't seem to lock on to Rachel's mood.
"Okay, so the deal means you get paid your remaining 40%, but you get it by being a script doctor on the Mark Poland film. You get to shape the script in some way to make it more similar to your own. Poland's company have bought the rights to your film and I agreed to have them do that."
"But I didn't authorize you to do that!" he snapped. Rachel stopped speaking for a few seconds as if she was expecting this eruption and was letting it blow over before she continued. "You made the deal without me and I'm angry about it. I could have got this film made in England and probably been the director too, you know?" He was pissed off now. He stood up and paced to the windows that filled the wall of the room. As he fumed by the cool glass, he could see technicians and actors moving around between sound stages. He saw Robin Rode, the well-loved character actor from the 80s talking and laughing with a short bearded man in a baseball cap. He thought he saw aging beauty Lisa Lane too, but on closer inspection it turned out to be one of the “galaxy of starlets” who've based their look on her. Rachel was beside him now, billowing smoke again. Bob waved it away. “Do they let you do that in here?”
"Screw ‘em,” she laughed, and put her hand tenderly on his shoulder. “Bobby, listen to me. The film was dead. Really dead. It happens. I didn't kill it; I just did my job and made sure that you got paid what was owing to you. I'm your agent. I get you work and make sure you get paid. That's what I do, because you pay me to. But look, I'm also your friend and I love you like a son. You call me more than my actual son. Tell me what I can do to make this all better and I'll do it."
"It was my film, Rachel. Now it's his film."
"You know as well as I do how hard it is to make a film at all in this burg. You know how hard it is to get anywhere without falling by the wayside. Think of the thousands of hopefuls who come here dreaming of fame only to end up dead, or worse . . . disillusioned."
Bob looked at her and she was smiling, that was a joke. He cooled a little. She was right, of course. He knew all too well that for every 1000 scripts that get written only one gets made and of every film that gets made only a handful are truly successful and make back the money that's spent on them. He was lucky to be working here at all, never mind earning a decent living.
He was suddenly feeling very tired. Since he'd arrived in LA he hadn't been able to contact his brother, and it was bugging him. Ken was an animator at a digital special effects house here. He hadn't seen him for two years and the last time had been in England for their father's funeral. They hadn't parted on good terms and although they had apologized to each other by email, he had been looking forward to making amends properly in person. He’d been an ass, and Ken was equally ass-like but the fault had been Bob’s. He was depressed by his father’s passing and had taken it out on Ken. He hoped they would be close again while he working out here.
Ken said he was going to visit a Star Trek convention in a week's time and Bob should come too. Ken's company had supplied some effects for a recent Star Trek and a number of other Paramount series, so he had a pass for the backstage area of the con.
But when he'd landed at LA International and called Ken he had got his voicemail. "Hi this is Ken Stanwick, I'm out and you better leave a message after the tone. Leave your message, but don't bother about the time and day 'cos the machine will date-stamp your message. If this is Bob, welcome to the US bro and I hope you're not too jet-lagged, mate. Look forward to hearing from you real soon. Okay, all you other guys, I'm not home. Now would be a good time to leave a message. Have a life. (BEEEEEP)"
It was the same when he'd got to his hotel last night and again this morning. Although he still felt that there would be some rational explanation he was starting to feel uneasy. Maybe he was feeling out of whack because of the flight and hardly any sleep. He realised that he was being unreasonably hard on Rachel.
"I'm sorry, love. I'm tired and I haven’t been able to get in touch with Ken since I got here. He was supposed to be here to meet me. He wasn’t and he's still not at home. I'm starting to get worried that's all, I'm not really angry with you. It's a good deal that these pirates are offering and I'm sure once the stinging pain of my creative wounds have healed I'll be more than happy with it."
"Attaboy." She laughed hoarsely. "You're a good writer, Bobby. Once people get to know your name and provided you kiss the right asses enough, I know you'll have a great future in this town. It could be worse. You could be asking people if they'd like fries with that. You've started in the middle. Few people get that chance."
She knew she was talking sense and so she dropped it, not wishing to press the point. After a moment she added, "And as far as Ken is concerned, I bet that he's just tied up somewhere, maybe he just met someone new and is too much in love to call you." She patted him on the back, carefully angling her enormous nails away from the fabric to avoid snagging them.
Bob smiled. "He's never been lucky enough to meet a woman who would tie him up . . ."
Rachel laughed explosively, a hearty shell burst followed by a short cackle of machine gun fire. "That's the spirit. Anything is obtainable for a price, Bobby, especially here. Look, I'm sure he's fine, sweetie. He'll call you when he's back in town, trust me."
She was probably right. Ken was impulsive and perhaps he really had gotten a better offer. Maybe he met the woman of his dreams and he'd call Bob tomorrow brimming with apologies and excuses. Ken would have to pick up his voicemails sooner or later and he consoled himself with that. For the moment.
Rachel hugged him around the shoulders. "C'mon darlin’, let's go see the Skeleton Brothers and get this thing over with. They’re waiting for us."
The Spindler Brothers were talking to each other behind an enormous oak desk when Rachel and Bob were shown into the room. Vincent, the older brother, was seated at the desk and his younger brother Melvin was standing, bent over a sheet of paper they were both pointing to on the desk top. Vincent rose as they entered and Melvin picked up the sheet of paper and put it discreetly into a folder and held the flap down with his hand in case the secrets escaped.
Both men were in their 70s and both had grey hair. Vincent looked like someone had taken all the air out of him and he was having trouble standing. He looked as if he would be more comfortable perched on a branch of a tree waiting for lions to finish their dinner rather than sitting in an office. Melvin was plumper, balding and wore rimless glasses that gave him the look of a sinister grey owl. They both had identical smiles, grey teeth in stretched lips.
Vincent spoke first, a powdery ancient voice that seemed to speak down the ages. "Ah, Bob Stanwick, Rachel Fine, come in my friends, take a seat. Can I get you something; coffee, tea, god forbid some liquor...?"
They declined and Vincent nodded to the secretary hovering in the doorway, who smiled and closed the door silently.
"So I take it this young woman has told you what's happened?"
Bob replied flatly. "We've made a deal with Mark Poland."
"Exactly. Well with his company, anyway." Vincent snorted and looked at Mel. "Like Mark Poland would lift a phone to talk to me, someone who gave him his breaks in the business. But that's ancient history and we're talking about the future here. More specifically we're talking about your future, which I may say is looking exceptionally bright from where I'm sitting, Bob." Vincent took a small wooden toothpick from the desk and picked a fragment of antelope from his teeth.
Mel circled the desk and floated to rest in a chair across the room to the left. Interesting that you could now only look at one of the brothers at a time by turning your head, thought Bob, and he wondered if this was a strategy. While one was speaking, the other could watch your face, study it for truth, without being observed. Melvin spoke and his voice had a slightly greasy quality, like oily fish. "Oh yes, very bright, Mr. Stanwick. This deal is a paradigm of the art of negotiation. Everyone gets what they want, yes?"
Rachel stiffened next to Bob and he knew she was willing him to be quiet and not mention about being evicted from his own project. He smiled and remained still and happy looking. Besides, he was starting to get used to the idea, though he wasn't happy he was resigned. Getting paid was going to have to be enough for now.
"Yes." Bob said the word simply, but it sounded like it came from someone else in the room. He was starting to feel an invisible monster nibbling at his feet and the detachment of the soon to be devoured victim was setting in.
Vincent spoke again, drawing their gaze and allowing Melvin to keep watch on Bob's face. He could feel those glass covered eyes scanning him out of the corner of his eye while Vincent was speaking. "You know the phrase 'scriptwriting is rewriting?' Well, we were only contracted to you for one more re-write anyhow. That might not have been enough mind you, not that I'm meaning anything by that, but anything could have happened. God forbid we may have had to talk to other writers to help you bring this thing together. You wouldn't have got paid for that work. Am I crazy? This way you get paid from the other picture until it's finished, not just until the end of the script. So you can't quibble with that. It's a golden opportunity, is it not? And working with Mark Poland, well, what more could a rising star like you want more than to orbit a planet the size of Mark Poland, eh?" Bob got lost somewhere along the way in that last mixed-up metaphor, surely stars don't orbit planets, but he knew what Vincent was really saying. He was telling Bob to shut up and take the job.
Vincent was speaking again, obviously seeing Bob's eyes glaze over he changed the subject. "That reminds me, by the way, you know that you will be working on the set every day? We'll be moving you out of the hotel as soon as we can free up some more permanent accommodation. How are you liking the Bel-Air, by the way?"
"It's fine. Very nice."
"Very nice? Hah. I love British understatement. Okay. Good. Once you move we'll pay your tab, so make as many international calls to your wife as you like, okay? It's all deductible from our end. Although you kids use the Internet now, yes?" Then he laughed. It was a horrible dusty sound as if his mouth was full of earth. He coughed a little at the end and then they all fell silent. Rachel cleared her throat, doubtless anxious to finish this meeting and get back to her next cigarette. "So that’s that, thank you for seeing us at such short notice, I know you are busy and we appreciate it, don’t we Bobby?" she said super brightly.
Vincent and Melvin rose and held out their hands to be shaken. Bob tried not to shake their hands too hard in case they fell apart like a waxwork in some ghastly old Vincent Price movie and he and Rachel slipped out of the room and closed the door behind them.
Back in the parking lot, Rachel had already got another cigarette in her mouth while she was fishing for the car keys in her bag. She looked a lot older in this penetrating sunlight.
"So, Bobby, not too painful, eh?" she said.
Bob looked at his shoes. "Look Rachel, first you said you weren't too happy about what they had in mind. But in there you made it seem like everything was peachy. What's going on?"
Rachel paused with her hand still in the bag. "I have to say that sort of thing. It makes my clients feel like I'm on their side when I have to do something in their interests that they might not like." She found the key and opened the door of her silver BMW. She put the top down and sat in the driver's seat. "I'm always acting in your interests, Bobby. Even if it seems sometimes like it's just about the money, it's about more than that, for me. Relationships are important in this business, Bobby. But relationships are just a means to make the money. Creativity is great and God bless you, honey, you have a lot of talent. But the real engine of Hollywood is the money." She started her own engine and gunned it before peeling off onto the street. "I'll call you tomorrow, sweetie. Bye bye."
Bob waved her off and then sat in his car for several minutes. She was a strange creature. So warm and generous outwardly and yet oddly callous underneath. Or was it the other way round? Hard to tell, sometimes. This business was so weird. You put yourself on the line every time you work. Your creative energies go into one project at a time, for years sometimes. Then out of nowhere it can all fall apart, or worse still it becomes successful and is taken away from you to be made into something else.
He always thought it was akin to making a suit out of the best cloth. You choose the cloth and the design. You sew on each button with care over many months. You make the trousers from the same cloth and they match perfectly. You press it and make sure all the loose threads are snipped and tied off. Then you sell it.
All the way along someone has been paying you to finish the suit and when it's finished you get your last bit of money, your job is done. Now when the client comes for his suit he brings another tailor who takes apart the suit in front of you, brings in his own cloth re-makes the suit using this new cloth but borrowing elements of your design. He discards the pants from the suit entirely and adds a pair of shorts in a different cloth, telling you that they did a survey and this type of trouser is more popular even though it doesn't go with the jacket. Then he sews the label with your name on it back into the new suit and tells everyone it's your new design. It's crazy.
Bloody focus group bullshit. Art in film is almost accidental, that’s a given. Competency is assumed and the people making these films out here are professional, he thought, no doubt. But are they artists? Sometimes. Does the art ever make it to the screen? Rarely and only if you keep control of every step. It’s even more rare that anyone will ever let you do that.
He realized he was falling prey to his national stereotype. Success is frowned on back home, he sighed to himself, as if you're cheating somehow if you don't fail miserably and keep a stiff upper lip. British critics were still labouring under the misapprehension that real film is art and if you earn too much money doing it you're not really an artist. And yet they scorn films that are commercially unsuccessful. What they always forgot was that film was also supposed to be fantasy or escapism, and even making artistic films is a business. It is as if there is some biblical law about “the commercial and the artistic must not lie together, like men and the beasts of the field” or some such rubbish. He was about to think that 'they' might be right, whoever 'they' are.
The chubby security guard tapped on the window of the car and he rolled it down.
"Uh, this message came for you. Uh, sir. Uh, thank you."
Bob thanked him and read the card. It said that Ken had called the studio and left a message while he was in the meeting. It said he would call him tomorrow and explain everything. Bob was relieved to hear from him, but something was nagging him at the back of his mind. He put the car in gear and drove back to the hotel.