As Dog is My Witness

photoPart 1: Friends

Chapter One

"Does it have to be New Jersey?" Glenn Waterman, tall, flaxen-haired, tan and handsome, damn him, was leaning back in his leather chair, resisting the impulse to put his feet up on his enormous modern desk with the state-of-the-art flat screen computer monitor on it. He had, for the sake of our conversation, removed the telemarketer-style headset from his ear, but he kept glancing at it, like a dog commanded to stay with a piece of red meat just barely out of reach.

"Yes," I said patiently. "It has to be New Jersey. I wrote the script about New Jersey because I know New Jersey. In fact, I think New Jersey pretty much becomes a character in the script. If you move it to, say, Oregon, it’s not going to make sense that people act or talk that way."

Glenn had summoned me to Los Angeles, as far off my normal Jersey turf as you can get without leaving the continent entirely, to discuss the twenty-fifth screenplay I’d written, The Minivan Rolls For Thee, a lighthearted murder mystery that… well, I’ve told that story already. Trust me; it was necessary for the proposed movie to take place in New Jersey.

Waterman’s company, Beverly Hills Films, was not, in fact, headquartered in Beverly Hills, which makes sense if you’ve ever dealt with anyone in the movie business. It was in Santa Monica, in as nondescript an office building as you could find in Southern California. But his office, in a corner with lots of windows, naturally, was impressive, much as Waterman intended it to be.

If he liked the script, Glenn’s company would take out what is in the movie business called an "option," which is something akin to a rental agreement. The production company gets to take the script to studios to beg for money to produce it, and the writer (that’s me) can’t let anyone else do that for the term of the option agreement. In return, the production company (that’s them) would give the writer (that’s me), um, money. That’s the theory.

Since Waterman had paid my airfare from Newark to L.A. and put me up in a hotel nearby, I figured he had some interest in the script. He was now doing what is called "giving notes," which means he was telling me everything that was wrong with the script he had told me, almost a month ago on the phone, was "brilliant." Things change quickly in Hollywood. If you’ve ever been there during an earthquake, you know exactly what I mean.

"I guess," he admitted finally. "Would be cheaper to shoot it in town, though."

"Anybody around here ever heard of the backlot?" I asked.

"They never use the backlot anymore," he said with a sneer. "Movies for Disney Channel use the backlot. Feature films go on location."

"So go on location to New Jersey," I suggested.

"We usually go to… other areas," Glenn said.

"Yeah. Usually to Canada, because everything’s cheaper up there. But I’m willing to bet you can find a part of Alberta that looks like New Jersey."

He brightened. "I’ll bet you’re right."

"It’s movie magic, Glenn," I told him.

As producers go, Waterman wasn’t a bad guy, which is like saying that the shark felt really bad about eating you but hey, he was hungry and you were a mackerel. He didn’t brutalize his assistant in front of me (I can’t vouch for anything that went on outside my presence), always offered a Diet Coke when I got to his office, and only made me sit in the chair in front of his desk—the intimidation one, much lower than the desk, and I didn’t need any help feeling short—when anyone else was involved in the meeting. Otherwise, I could use the couch, which was itself larger than my Midland Heights, New Jersey living room.

"Aaron, on page 64…" Waterman was moving on to another note, and we had been at this for three straight days.

"Is this a big one, Glenn? I have a plane to catch in…" I checked my watch ostentatiously. "An hour and a half." I was lying; it was actually two hours, but I’d heard enough, already. He was into nit-picking, things that wouldn’t make the script better, but would be changed to show the producer’s "creative input." Besides, this was Los Angeles, and driving from the parking lot to the next traffic light could take a half hour.

"Go," he said. "Go home to your wife and kids. And do the rewrite fast, Aaron. We have to strike while the iron is hot."

I stopped after picking up my canvas bag, halfway to the door, which meant I was only 50 yards from leaving the office. "The iron’s hot? We have a hot iron?"

"I’ve been talking this up, Aaron," he looked hurt. "People know me. They’ll want to know what I thought was so good. Make it better, and we’ll have a deal."

"You know, my agent’s going to complain that I’m doing work on it without an option agreement in place," I said, knowing full well that my agent, based in Cleveland, would have welcomed any interest in my scripts, even if it were from Hitler Wasn’t Such A Bad Guy Productions, and they wanted me to work for free, forever. Margot was not exactly what you’d call a scorched-earth negotiator.

"Don’t worry. I have confidence in you. You fix it, and we’ll have an option soon."

Great. He had such confidence in me that he was sending me on my way to do more work on a screenplay he’d initially loved, and giving me no money to do it. I guess there’s confidence and then there’s confidence.

I just hoped he wasn’t running a confidence game. Sorry.

I made the flight with a little time to spare, after having convinced the crack Los Angeles International Airport security team that the part-metal object in my pocket was a guitar capo, which it actually was. Unless they thought I could attack someone and take them hostage by changing their key, there was no actual threat here. The fact that everything in the security area was labeled "LAX" didn’t inspire overwhelming confidence, but I could only hope they knew more about who was a terrorist and who wasn’t than I did.

I got out my cell phone before the flight attendant made the announcement to turn all electronic devices off, something which still sounds to me like a line from a science fiction movie. I pushed the "1" button and held it for a couple of seconds.

Abigail’s voice, my favorite sound on this planet, broke through from 3,000 miles away. "Hello?"

"This is an obscene phone call." The woman to my left, in her mid-sixties, gave me an involuntary glance.

"Oh good," said my wife. "I haven’t had one in hours."

"We aim to please. I’m on the plane."

"Thank goodness," Abby sighed. "I’m tired of being a single parent."

"How are they?"

"Leah misses you," she said. "And I’m pretty sure Ethan has noticed you’re gone. He complained about walking the dog, but didn’t say it was your turn."

"Well, it’s been four days. He was bound to catch on sometime. Have I gotten any work calls?"

"A couple from the Star-Ledger and one from Lydia at Snapdragon. She says they don’t have anything now, but she’s not forgetting about you."

"Neither is Bank of America, and they want their mortgage paid on time," I groaned.

"I’m still gainfully employed, Aaron," my wife reminded me. "We’re not getting thrown out on the street anytime soon. Oh, and you’ve gotten four phone calls from Lori Shery."

That was odd. "Lori? What’d she say?"

"Just to call her back. She obviously didn’t know you were away, and I haven’t talked to her; I just heard the messages on the machine."

"She probably wants a free column for her newsletter, but she usually emails," I said. It was odd that Lori would call, and four times in a day (I had talked to Abby the day before) meant it was important. "Well, there’s not much I can do from here. I’ll call her when I get home."

"Which will be soon," Abby said.

"It’s touching that you miss me."

"Not at all. It’s garbage night, and Ethan can’t lift the can all by himself."

"Stop it; your devotion is getting me aroused." The woman next to me looked up at the "call flight attendant" button and gave it serious thought.

Abby’s voice turned serious. "I’ll be glad to see you, honey," she said. "You know that."

"I miss you guys more than I can tell you in a public place," I answered. "I hate being away."

"How’d the meeting go? Did he give you the option?"

I wasn’t interested in telling her what a bad negotiator I am. "They’re saying I have to turn off the cell, Abby. I’ll tell you about it when I get home."

"That means no, doesn’t it?"

"See you soon, honey. I love you!" I hung up.

So I’m a bad negotiator, a liar and a coward.