SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 12, 2017

Diseased Foundations

 

Some six or seven years ago I was having a hell of a time finding any paying work at all, and was starting to get a little antsy about what passed for my bank account. Then one afternoon the phone rang. On the other end was a woman from some small production house in Los Angeles. The company was run by a bunch of do-gooders with way too much money who made three-minute self-congratulatory public service announcements for do-gooder foundations which likewise had way too much money. Most of these self-serving commercials were designed to be screened at their clients’ assorted annual conferences. The woman asked me if I was interested in writing the script for a short film about an organization that handed out free hearing aids to poor deaf African children.

            Well I most certainly was not. Not in the least. Then she told me what they were willing to pay me for this, and I immediately signed on. She sent me some background info, and over the course of a day or two, I knocked out a little script I thought was pretty darn good if I may say so. It was informational, funny, even profound in spots I thought. But when I turned it in, she told me it wasn’t what they were looking for. Then she got me on the phone with three other producers who would explain to me what it was, exactly, they were looking for.

            Over the course of the next forty-five minutes they took turns spouting incoherent buzzwords at me. Then they repeated them. Then they repeated them again, as if they were becoming more lucid with each reiteration. I had no idea what any of these phrases meant. They sounded like bad translations from the Dutch hoping to convey concepts that had no English equivalent. I lied and told them I had a much better idea now of what they were looking for, thanks for clarifying, hung up and got to work on a second draft.

            It wasn’t nearly as good as the first, but it was at least dumber, which I thought was a start. The same crew called again after I turned in that draft, and again they went at it with the same inane buzzwords. After twenty minutes it finally hit me. I knew exactly what they were looking for at last. What an idiot I’d been! I sat down once more and wrote what was essentially an early Bunuel experimental short with narration by Rod McKuen. It was godawful. It made absolutely no sense, offered no information about what the organization actually did, but the words were pretty and empty-headed.

            That one they loved, as I knew they would, but just to justify their own salaries they felt compelled to rearrange all the text so it made even less sense. I didn’t give a fuck. My name would never be associated with it, and I’d cash the check. I did vow at the time though that I would never ever work with these people again. I’d heard plenty of horror stories from friends who’d cracked it writing for the big studios. Too many tales of dealing with roomfuls of sub-moronic micro-managing producers who had no idea what they wanted, but insisted on pretending they did. Even on this microscopic level it was unbearable. Then the check arrived and I forgot about it.

            Jump ahead to a couple of weeks ago. Same woman called, I was drunk. She asked if I’d be interested in writing two minutes of narration for a PSA to be screened at a conference for some rare disease foundation. The conference was in three weeks, so they needed things in a hurry. She then went on to tell me all about the disease, which was so rare no one had even heard of it six years ago. She also told me all about the unbelievably wealthy couple who started the foundation after their daughter came down with the disease. Then she told me the title of the short, which was also to be the running theme.

            It was the worst fucking title I’d ever heard, and this from someone who’s been keeping a list of my own miserable titles for twenty years. This was too outrageously awful even for my list. It wasn’t grammatical, it made no sense, but she was obviously under the impression it was deeply profound. It wasn’t. At the same time I started thinking yeah, this is what happens. We get foundations to find cures for rare diseases only when rich people’s kids get sick. If I’d contracted it when I was a kid, no one would have given a damn and I would have been found in a ditch somewhere. The whole idea made me want to puke all over the phone.

            I was about to tell her to go fry. Who needed it? I learned my lesson the first time around. Then she told me they were paying ten times what I got for my last novel for two minutes of narration. Like I said I was drunk at the time, and without hesitation told her I was the man for the job.

            Okay, I’m a whore and a sellout. So sue me. As I keep telling myself, I can write stupid crap for a little bit of money, and can write even stupider crap for much much more money. It’s a simple truth that helps explain a lot of things.

            This producer sent me a link to all the other films they’d made for this particular foundation, and I played them all the next day. What struck me was that for all of them, there was absolutely no information about what the disease was, how it worked, or what the symptoms were. They didn’t even name the fucking disease, referring to it only as a group of letters. So I started doing my own research, and saw what I could do with this narration—namely something none of the other shorts had done. I’d offer up some basic facts and information in a light and breezy way. It’d be a snap, and obviously much needed if they were trying to educate the general public about this pet disease of theirs.

            Her precise words when I turned it in, and she repeated them several times, were: “This is exactly what we weren’t looking for.” I thought back to my first dealings with these retards, remembering only too late “informational” and “good” were never what they were looking for.

            The next day I found myself on the phone with this producer, the head of the foundation, and the foundation’s chief medical advisor. I asked them two questions I thought were fairly simple and straightforward. First, was the film to be aimed at foundation insiders or the general public? And second, could they tell me precisely what it is they were after?

            In response to both questions I guess, the producer started repeating the stupid four-word title of the film to be, putting the emphasis on a different word each time in an effort to prove how profound it was. The head of the foundation kept insisting the whole thing was about her, because it was her personal story that was attracting donors. And the doctor tossed out occasional metaphors that made no sense and a few homemade buzzwords that were just plain bone-headed gibberish. How is it that it’s always people like this who end up with all the money?

            I lied again, told them I knew what they wanted, and got off the phone. Figuring the foundation lady was the one footing the bill, I went with her idea and wrote a second draft about how very great and courageous and magnanimous she was, trying to save her rich daughter’s life by tossing tens of millions of dollars at a bunch of bored medical researchers.

            The next day I learned this, too, was exactly what they weren’t looking for. No, instead (and why couldn’t I understand this?) I was supposed to run with the gibberish that incomprehensible jackoff of a doctor was spouting. I didn’t point out that nothing he had to say made the slightest bit of sense.

            “The chances of any given person being struck by lightning in a given year is one in a million,” he’d said at one point. “but over the course of a lifetime, those odds drop to one in ten thousand.” He then fell silent to let the stunning profundity of it all sink in.

            I was tempted to respond, “Yes, but may I remind you that in 1764 Captain MacMillan set sail for Antigua with a mutinous crew. He never reached his destination.” Instead, and only after an extremely long pause, I responded, “Um, okay.”

            I again remembered what happened that first time around, and in a flash knew what needed to be done.

            The next day I turned in a draft that was nothing but corny incoherent gibberish, all platitudes, treacle and absurd metaphors, and they took it. The producer sent me a note saying I could submit an invoice for the first half of the agreed payment. I’m beginning to understand all over again why we’re in the state we’re in.

            I felt filthy and used and cheap as a two-dollar whore, but figured it would go away when the check cleared.

            A week later on a Friday afternoon I received a one-line note from the producer, telling me she’d call on Monday about the final payment. I started to catch a whiff of rank bullshit drifting my way. I decided not to worry about it too much, just wait and hear what she has to say.

            Well, Monday was fast slipping away without having heard a thing, so I dropped her a line reminding her she was supposed to call about the check they owed me.

            An hour later the phone rang. Instead of the producer on the other end, it was my agent. I adore my agent, but immediately knew what was happening, and knew those do-gooder fuckwits in LA were too sniveling and craven to call me themselves.

            “I had no idea this was just a one-page thing,” my agent said. “that’s an absurd amount of money they offered.”

            “Of course it is,” I told her. “Never would’ve taken the job otherwise.”

            She then explained, as I knew she was going to, that the people at the disease foundation weren’t happy with my script for some unstated reason, and had to bring in another writer.

            “Now they have to pay this other writer,” my agent said, “So they’re wondering what they should do with the second half of your payment.”

            The answer seemed perfectly simple. “They should send it to me.”

            My agent, bless her, agreed. Then we talked about stupid Hollywood types, their hilarious incompetence with the language, and how much money they have. She told me she’d get right back to the producer and tell her it was her own damn fault for offering that much, and that they had to pay up.

            After hanging up I returned to the office and sent the producer a very cordial note which read: “I’m very sorry things didn’t work out. I wish you all the best of luck with the project. My invoice is attached below.”

            I’m sorry, but I’ve been in this stinking business way too long now to put up with this kind of goddamned nonsense from fools. So once again I vowed I would never agree to work with them, or anyone like them, again. At least until they made an offer.

 

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