Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Certain Boxes

I rent a storage space, one of those industrial-strength closets with a corrugated steel door in a bunker-like building five minutes from where I live. This was out of a general desire to order my life by removing from underfoot those things I don’t use every day and/or lack the will to throw away. Mostly manuscripts.

I boxed them, labeled them and hauled them to their sheet-rock catacomb, there to wait until I can find some unsuspecting university that not only wants my "papers,” but is willing to swing by and pick them up.

These boxes contain just about everything I’ve written, stack along with items belonging to my late mother, rescued from a similar storage space near the men’s correctional facility in Teaneck, New Jersey. I’m going to need a really gullible university.

Behind a rolling metal door you can find all my successes. But what I’ve been thinking about lately are those more purgatorial boxes, the ones containing the remains of projects that have gone on without me. These are not to be confused with trunk pieces, those favorite but unloved projects that might still get made one day.

No, I mean the results of assignments I’ve taken as the first or maybe the middle writer in the arduous development process that leads to studio-made American movies. A process known as “The De-Flavorizing Machine.” These were jobs I had taken with high hope, noble enthusiasm and a sincere goodwill which in retrospect makes one look downright certifiable.

“You should have known it would end badly. One look at how many producers and how many levels of executives each with an agenda magnetically opposed to the others, and you should have known it would all end in tears.”

Not really tears, thought. Tears have finality; getting fired has finality. Weeping or yelling at somebody gives a nightmare at least the appearance of a conclusion.

The thing is, writers don’t get fired in this business. Not really. The most accurate verb to describe what happens would be to say you are “forgotten” off a project.

A script is turned in and there is a silence more profound than any found on the dark side of the moon. But then, silence is preferable to hearing from their attorneys.

A recent addition to the limbo boxes began with the best of intentions and ended with words such as “recalcitrant” and “Mutual non-disparagement clause.” They have moved on without me and I’ve banished the script from my hard drive and my house. Hauling it–nay speeding it–to that dark sepulcher on Ventura Boulevard.

Fortunately, the hostility and bitterness don’t cling to the pages themselves. No, all is peaceful in Building 2, Space 391, where the words that have been spoken rest comfortably with the words that will never be spoken. It’s the same level playing field which lets kings be buried with their dogs and permits my mother’s “good” glasses to rest in the same box with the Welch’s jelly jars. It is the equanimity of the tomb.

But to really rest in peace, these ghosts must sometimes be avenged. Opportunity for retribution doesn’t come often to writers, but sometimes it does.

I was at a reception after a screening, one glass of white wine under my belt, when someone I hadn’t seen in years came up to me all smiles and “How are you?”…apparently forgetting that she never called me after I gave her a second draft and that it took a phone call from my agent to the studio to find out I was no longer on the project.

And now one of the producers stood before me, so glad to see me after all this time. She asked me if I had a copy of that script I’d written for her during the first half of the decade. Maybe we can get it back in development somewhere. I told her it was in storage, in a cardboard box printed with a brown wood grain, in a metal closet in the shadow of a freeway.

Then I did something you never get a chance to do. Maybe it was the wine, or the need for closure, or the realization that those boxes full of scripts have as much right to justice as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Calmly, evenly, with a smile on my face, I told her, “You know, you never called me after I handed in that draft. You just left me hanging. It was a rude, rather cowardly way to do business. You should have done the right thing, but you didn’t.”

It was late, she had an early meeting the next day, so nice to see me again. I like to think of her exit from the reception as “slinking away,” but I could have misinterpreted; the event was self-park and she might have been disoriented by the absence of a valet.

In a fictional world my route home from the screening would have taken me past the storage facility. I could have looked over at the bland building and cranked up the radio in salute. But I would have to drive out of my way if I wanted to perform such a victory lap. Besides, that would have been way too tidy an ending for my taste.


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