Or How One Norwegian Film Cost Me $50,000
I was going to give a list of my favorite obscure Halloween Movies in honor of this great holiday. Instead, I thought I’d give you something much scarier. It’s the tale of how this writer screwed up his chance at a paid gig writing for Disney. It’s not for the weak of heart.
Oh, and please forgive the film-noirish, guy-on-a-bar-stool, Glory Days kind of start to this story…
It’s 2003. Things are good. As good as they’ve ever been for me. My play The Gifted Program is running in a very fine production in Chelsea. The week before, the show had been trashed by Time Out New York. (This was before I learned that this is the ultimate sign of quality) It was at this low morale point in the run when, out of nowhere, a capsule writer for the New Yorker reviewed the show and loved it. Gifted began selling tickets. Dramatist Play Service and Samuel French both wanted to publish my play. I was on cloud nine.
A short while later, I got a phone call from Disney. I made the first cut of the Walt Fellowship. For those of you not in the know, the Walt is a competition that Disney offers to up-and-coming writers. They select five writers a year and pay them a $50,000 salary to create screenplays or TV scripts for them. If selected, you must move to LA, and spend a year there as an employee.
I exist in a sort of sub-economy, as if Costa Rica had extended its borders to encircle me permanently. So in terms of dollars, 50,00 US is probably more like 1.7 million to me. Not only would I have a great new job, it was a great new job with full benefits. At this point in my life, my health insurance plan consists of a dog tag I wear requesting medical personnel euthanize me for anything worse than a broken leg.
I nailed the phone interview, the last hurdle to make it to the semi-finals. I was uncommonly calm and normal, and had a really enjoyable conversation about old movies. The producer I interviewed with was also a huge fan of It’s A Wonderful Life. Something just told me I was going to make it to the next round.
So I wasn’t entirely surprised when I got the call. What was surprising was the fact that I was the only New Yorker, and the only playwright. (Something I wish they would of never told me) A short while later, I flew out to LA for my big interview.
I was put up in a nice hotel, somewhere near Universal City. Spent the day with some good friends, who kept me in high spirits and really helped alleviate the stress. On the advice of a level-headed pal, I had put together speaking points and anticipated a few questions I might be asked. More excited than nervous, I was looking forward to the interview.
In the morning, a leisurely coffee and newspaper. Next, twenty minutes in the outdoor hot tub, musing at the palm trees above me. I put on a carefully-regarded, slightly dressed-up outfit, and went over my talking points one more time. I was relaxed. I was ready.
What I wasn’t ready for, however, was my hotel’s policy of taking a 150 dollar deposit for incidentals. As I pulled out cab money from an ATM to get to the studios in Burbank, I realized I was now worth a grand total of 3 dollars. There was nothing to be done. I had to get to the interview, and worry about getting back to the hotel, eating, and finding my way to the airport, all for under 3 bucks, some other time.
The taxi ride was nerve-wracking. I wasn’t sure if I had enough to get there, and didn’t know if I could find the studios on foot if I didn’t. Gauging the meter like it was counting down the minutes to my execution, I made it with enough spare change to give a tip that merely made me look like a jackass, instead of a complete sponger.
I walked through the gates of Disney Studios as an invited writer and guest. It was the only real moment of glory I would have.
First mistake. I got to the interview way too early. My calm excitement turned to regular excitement, then to nervousness. After a half hour in a leather lobby chair, I was sweating and felt ill. A nice assistant asked if I needed a water. I took it, and considered pouring it over my head. Eric McCormack from Will & Grace walked past me and smiled. This only made me feel more unreal. By the time I got called in, I was pretty wrecked.
I‘m at a long table. Eight producers enter the room, sit. The questions begin. Out of the starting gate, things are pleasant. We talk about movies, and a young guy makes the assumption that I want to write indie films. He’s trying to be helpful, but I happen to be applying for a job with Disney, which, let’s face it, isn’t the home of the Little Movie That Could. I answer honestly that I want to make pictures that my family back in Wisconsin would want to see. I make a joke that they haven’t seen a movie in a theater since John Candy died. It gets a small laugh.
The thing about meetings like this is you can really tell from moment to moment who is with you and who isn’t. For me, the room is constantly shifting. I gain one person, lose another. Ten minutes into the interview, and from the looks on the faces around me, I’m split; four are with me, four against. I’m going to have to start saying something intelligent.
Someone mentions the fact that I’m the only New Yorker, and the only playwright. I’m relieved, as I had prepared for that line of questioning. The only thing is, all the talking points I’ve made for myself start coming out all wrong. For some reason, I’m taking on this edgy, defensive attitude. I’m saying things and as I’m saying them I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, you’re sounding like a real ass.” I go on a minor rampage about how it’s actually an advantage to be a playwright and not a screenwriter, because I can sit with every audience and know exactly what works and what doesn’t. That I’m responsible for putting people in seats, entertaining them, all on the basis of my hard earned, slowly gained reputation. You can fool people with special effects or star power, but as a playwright you only have the power of your work. It’s all going over like a fart in church. My foot isn’t in my mouth, it’s somewhere in the lower intestines at this point.
Mercifully, someone changes the subject. They throw me an underhand pitch: What was the best movie you saw this year? Such an easy question, right? The devil on my shoulder smirks. He whispers:
“Pirates of the Caribbean! Pirates! Say it!”
I can’t do it. I hated Pirates of The Caribbean. The only reason I didn’t walk out was the punk rock teenager across the aisle that had dropped too much acid and was causing a really entertaining commotion.
Devil: “Come on, you can do it. Just say it with me now: Pie. Ruts. Ov. The. Care. A. Bee. Yun. Fif. Tee. Thow. Zund. Doll. Ahs!”
Eight blank faces.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Yeah. It’s a Norwegian film.”
More silence. Seven blank faces. The Young Guy, God bless him, is dutifully writing down the name of the film, like he really intends to see it.
“It was nominated for an Academy Award last year. It’s about two mentally ill roommates who get a chance to live in regular society. They have to find jobs, make friends. But just walking around the corner to get groceries is an ordeal. It’s extremely funny.”
Needless to say, the interview was soon over. There was a friendly, upbeat goodbye from everyone, but I knew I had blown it.
Now there was the matter of getting home. I called the hotel demanding they release my money, but they wouldn’t budge. It’s about five miles from Burbank on foot, if you know where you’re going. I hopped on a bus, walked a few miles, mistakenly got on the subway, and walked some more. I’m not the first person to make this remark, but walking anywhere in Los Angeles makes you an instant, fringe-dwelling freak. Which, justly, is exactly where I fit into the echelons of Los Angeles. It was very dark by the time I finished that lonely trek.
I ate the cheapest fast food I could find, and convinced a soft-hearted friend to drive me to the airport. When I touched down in New York, there was just enough change left over for a metro card to get me to my apartment via bus and subway transfer.
Prospect Heights seemed unusually quiet when I finally arrived back to my own private Costa Rica. If I were a samurai, this would’ve been the point at which I committed ritual seppuku. Luckily, I was merely a writer, and was at the very least, home.