July 31, 2011

No Water Hot Enough to Wash Away the Shame


A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from someone I knew professionally. Not a stupid man, but one who should certainly know better. There were two things he could’ve been calling me about, I figured. Two vaguely promising potential projects that had been floating around for a long time. These two things were the only reason I dealt with this guy, so it had to be one or the other on his mind that afternoon.

            As usual, I was wrong. Instead, he asked if I would write the script for a short promo film for some non-profit do-gooder organization.

            It was, of course, a ridiculous suggestion. Why the hell would I want to do something like that? Of course not. No.

            Then he waved a check at me. I’m sorry, but I haven’t worked in over a year, so you wave a check at me, all integrity goes right out the fucking window.

            “Yeah, I could do that,” I said.

            I wouldn’t need to say anything about the do-gooder organization itself, which was good because I knew nothing and cared nothing about the organization. They wanted me to just keep it general and broad. So that was fine, too.

            “We also want it to be real inspirational,” he said. “That’s the real key—inspirational.”


            As he spoke, the word “content” kept coming up too. That word bothers me. When someone talks about “content,” they’re just saying that the piece in question serves no other purpose apart from filling space between advertisements, like most television shows or radio news reports. It simply doesn’t matter.

            All the while as I was listening to this I was thinking, why in the fuck are you calling me? There are thousands of far more qualified and talented people out there—people who might actually give a goddamn about these do-gooders—so why ask a nihilist? It made no sense. Given that I needed that check, however, I didn’t raise the question.

            Then I learned why he was calling me instead of someone, y’know, better.

            “The film is scheduled to premiere at a fundraising conference at the end of the month. Bill Clinton and a lot of other dignitaries are going to be there, so we’re on kind of a tight schedule.”

            Ah-hah. It sounded to me like the more qualified, talented person they had lined up to do this got wise and dropped out at the last minute. They were screwed. They were desperate, and at this point would take any hack, so long as he worked fast. Then someone remembered that I worked fast and was desperate myself. I’d probably work cheap to boot.

            So nincompoop that I am, I took the fucking job.

            An hour after getting off the phone I’d whipped out a neat little script if I do say so myself. It was clever, it was inventive, it was three minutes long. I don’t know that I’d exactly call it “inspirational,” but hell, someone might. And I bet none of these folks I was sending it to ever considered going in this particular direction. I confess that it turned out much better than I thought it would.

            The next morning I cleaned things up, put it in the proper format, and shipped it off. They had it in their hands less than twenty-four hours after they’d asked me. That must’ve cheered them up, eh? Maybe I’d even get a damn bonus (though I doubted it. As with everyone who approaches these days, the conversation began “we don’t have much money, but . . . ”)

            After sending it off, I went about my business, quite pleased with myself for a job well done.

            The next day I heard back from one of the producers behind the project. Now, this group is based in Los Angeles, right? So this conversation began with the “love it baby you’re a brilliant genius” speech, which is always the way people in L.A. (and New York for that matter) tell you that they are rejecting wholesale whatever it is you gave them. In fact there is no more clear death-knell in the world than to hear a Hollywood producer describe something—even a three-minute promo—as “brilliant.”

            Then he put me on the speaker phone. I hate speaker phones and the people who use them. Normally if someone calls me from a speaker phone, I hang up. But, keeping that check in mind, I listened to the guy explain what it was, exactly, that they were looking for (which wasn’t what I had given them).

            Not only did he offer me “direction” in the form of three absolutely meaningless words (one of them being “transformative”) he kept repeating these three words in different order over and over again, as if each time he did it he was offering me something different, some subtle insight into what the film was “about.” He wasn’t. He was just a moron.

            Finally, not knowing how much longer he intended to continue repeating those stupid buzzwords, I stopped him. “Okay,” I said. “I know what you’re looking for.”

            He seemed relieved by this, perhaps because his voice was giving out. I was relieved, too. After hanging up the phone I opened a beer and lit a cigarette. Then I had a few more beers. When I was drunk, I went to bed. The next morning I sat back down at the machine.

            Over the course of the next hour or two, I pulled out every goddamn cheap, schmaltzy cliche I could think of and crammed them all into three minutes. I was absolutely shameless. I used everything except a shot of little Timmy in a hospital bed hugging Lassie. In the narration I even used the three meaningless buzzwords the producer kept spouting. I knew he would probably be thrilled that I really “got” what they were after.


            I cleaned it up and reformatted it, but before I turned it in I talked to Morgan. “I crammed so much schmaltz up their ass they’re gonna be spittin’ chicken feathers,” I told her. “They’re gonna eat this shit up.”

            Later that afternoon I received an email, and found that I was right. Now, this one, they said, this one was great. I didn’t know if I wanted to weep or puke.

            They only made one suggestion, namely that the soundtrack be something other than Wagner.

            (It’s not just that I couldn’t resist putting a bit of the cynical lie to what I was doing—I really was listening to Wagner as I worked, and it seemed to fit perfectly).

            Yeah, so they were conned and they were happy and I was a whore who would be receiving a check in the mail.

            And this, my friends, is why everything you see and hear and read these days (except my books of course) is such impossible, unfathomable shit.


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