I had interned for a high profile producer, albeit one who had left LA for Oklahoma, and had worked on the set of a couple of internationally shot, independent films where my title (or should I say titles) ranged, on the same project from Production Assistant to Assistant Camera Man. Associate Producer to cast member (thankfully I had taken an on-camera acting course in addition to a course in Iranian Cinema). How, with a background as all- encompassing as mine was, could I not arrive to LA and immediately land a salary of mid six figures? In addition to my broad education, my experience as an international man of mystery, my ability to multi-task in the industry and my vast knowledge of aspiring Oklahoma Screenwriters, I also believed I was terribly handsome which was really the key to success. That, and of course, I had met and had my photograph taken with Gary Busey, or Gary as I called him.... Gare Bear... We were tight.
So I arrived to Los Angeles where I immediately (because I was so awesome) landed a job on the television show 24. This meant that I now knew Keifer Sutherland... which combined with indelible knowledge of the world of Greek Cinema and my good looks meant that I was qualified to do one thing. Nothing. One would think that I would have been humbled by the mediocrity of such arduous tasks as xeroxing or refrigerator reorganization, but not me. Instead, determined to make a splash in the world, decided that to set myself apart from the pack of ragtag PA's I worked with, I would make business cards for myself complete with 24 logo. This way people would really think I was amazing and then I would mention Keif and Gare Bear, and then they would just hand me a check for about seven hundred fifty thousand dollars and then invite me to Maestro's along with their beautiful and powerful friends where I would order the lobster mashed potatoes and some steamed asparagus for the table. A culinary masterpiece I knew was the cat's pajamas because I had ordered it once before... with my grandmother.
It was the bravado that accompanies having your very own business card associating you with an emmy-winning television show that I came to the conclusion that the only way to make it in life was to become friends with the people that mattered, so that is what I did. I began to define myself by my relationship with 24 creator Joel Surnow and because he was a writer, obviously, because of my proximity to him, I was pretty much a writer as well, though the only writing I had ever done was a silent film I had made in college. That said, I was hardly discouraged and would tell anyone that listened that my tasks included making sure that all the heads of both the studio and network received their scripts and those studio heads knew me on a first name basis. I believed that somehow this task alone, which was little more than a messenger service, would qualify me to be a member of one of the most acclaimed writing staffs on television at that time. I was wrong. So wrong in fact, that when it came time to get the smallest promotion to actually work for one of the Executive Producers, I was passed over. My looks and relationship with Gary Busey... My knowledge of Maestro's most delectable menu items... my business cards... had let me down. It was then that with great urging, I found myself working in the mailroom at an Agency.
This agency that at the time represented about 25% of the talent in Los Angeles and I met some very good friends here. I was mopped-headed, disheveled, not to mention under-educated and too sensitive for this job which consisted of pushing a mail cart, tossing wadded up paper into trash cans, and tracking down beet juice early in the morning. I hated every second of this job. It was torture. The mailroom was made up of two types of people. Mailroom staffers and Ivy League graduates who had recently read The Mailroom and gave up their parent's supported goal of becoming a lawyer for the more elusive, but sexier, more creative and potentially lucrative goal of working in the entertainment industry. It was around the later type that I realized that even with my photo of Gary B. and my business card, I was in fact, retarded compared to these kids. The objective for each one of us was to work on a "desk" for one of the agents. Some were respectably ambitious and constructive with their criticism but many were out of their fucking minds. Working for them meant that you connected calls to both clients and people seeking clients, sent out packages along with client material and maintained a variety of lists and grids of various projects at studios and networks. What it really meant was that for the most part, you were tethered to a desk and berated by ego-driven, drug addicted, sociopaths whose primary function in life was to be rich without any concept that the goal in life beyond wealth, was to be happy.
Working for these individuals changed the way I saw the world. Each day I would put on my coat and tie and fight back tears. I looked like such a fraud and the tie felt more like a noose than a suit accessory, slowly choking every ounce of passion for Hollywood that I had from my being. Long gone were the days of handsome Matt. Where as most of the people working in the mailroom spent on the average of six weeks pushing a cart before promotion, I spent about four months. I tempt on desks and when the agent would arrive to see me sitting there, forcing a smile would mutter... "fuck...." For the next two hours I would frantically roll phone calls until I hung up on a client or said the wrong name, at which point, I would be told to close their door and to get human resources on the phone for them.
One particularly fond memory I have of this anxiety was on a day on the desk of a man, who even by this agency's standards, was terrifying. I had Ryan Seacrest on a line, Dick Clark on another, Gene Simmons on a third and his wife on the fourth. He told me to connect his wife, and instead I hung up on everyone. He told me that I had just hung up on ten million dollars of commissions, to close his door and call human resources. I hung my head, took off my headset, pushed in the desk chair, and, in my coat and tie, preemptively returned to the mailroom where for the rest of the day, I tossed wadded up paper balls into the trash can with the other mailroom staffers.
It was at this job that I found myself praying that my appendix would burst or perhaps an earthquake would knock out the power of the city so I wouldn't have to go to work. An alien invasion would have been a welcome distraction from my day to day misery. One afternoon, the agency brought in a group of young inner-city filmmakers to speak to the company and a couple of them got internships. Shortly after being kicked off of yet another desk, I washed out an agent's coffee mug and then begrudgingly putting into the dishwasher. One of the interns came in, eyes aglow, amazed that we had a dishwasher. She just looked at it in wonder and I looked at it and just cried.
The upside to all of this was that because I hated my life at this company so much, and because it was so suffocating, my only outlet was in sending strongly worded emails about the insanity to my friends that worked on various desks. Though the emails where infused with despair, depression, and anger, that discord channeled itself as sarcasm which would then create laughter. Suddenly, my misery became my calling card. It was at this moment that I learned that it paid to be cynical and suddenly I was happy again. Happy complaining! I began writing all of the time, and ultimately decided that was a suitable career path. I had read many scripts at this point and had decided I could do better. I was way better. I mean I had written funny emails, so of course I could write a feature that someone would love so much that they would be willing to buy it and to invest millions and millions of dollars.... and this was going to happen very soon. It was time to go shopping for a new car. I could feel it.
Back to feeling confident (and handsome) only this time with the knowledge that being a cynic was my calling card, I began to explore all of the things I disliked in this world. I went to work for people that were far more possessed than any agent I had ever worked for. At the agency, I had only experienced my own desire to have a ruptured appendix to avoid dealing with insane and unreasonable individuals. It was at this job that I actually experienced the desire to physically harm another person. These guys were the biggest assholes in the entire world.
The good news is that it was an easier job so I had time to write. The bad news was that through journalling and cynical writing, I was beginning to find myself in a constant state of negativity that no fancy business card could could extract me from. It was also at this job that I began to rue the title assistant. It just seemed absurd. This is when I learned that in Hollywood, one can distort their job title with the twisting or omission of a single word. Instead of telling people that I wrote a spec episode of 2 1/2 Men, I would say... I wrote a 2 1/2 Men. By omitting the word "spec" I felt validated. Though immediately gratifying in the sense that people you spoke to then assumed you had talent, sadly, it created a gap between who I actually was in my life and who I wanted to be and the space between those two things seemed to get larger with every completed script.
The bending of the truth created in internal emotional rift that became more vast when I began trying to get an agent, a world that I had left and now needed back into (cruel town). This is something that, despite learning a little humility at Endeavor, I did with the same bravado as when I had first moved to LA. I believed that everything I wrote was a masterpiece and it would change the world. I believed that the Curb spec I wrote... where Cheryl thinks Larry cheated.... would change.... the world. A spec script... would change... the world. I gave it to everyone and assured them it was the best. I also believed that just because someone was said they "like" it, actually meant they liked it. Now having read hundreds of scripts, I have learned that the easiest thing to say when you hate something to the degree that it is beyond help, is to say, "I liked it..." So with each "like" I believed I was inching closer to my dreams, when what was really happening was that I was alienating myself. Though my writing improved, the "no's" began to become common practice. The saddest part in all of this was that every "no" was preceded by the hope that my life was about to improve. All at once, I found my entire life beginning to fall apart. Where the F was Gary Busey when I needed him?
This spiral continued for many years. The gap between what I projected and what I believed myself to be became cavernous and insurmountable. I wrote and with each word, I believed less in what I was doing and suddenly, my writing began to feel real. I began to write honestly and emotionally. It was no longer fluff, but it was in knowing the darker parts of myself that I was able to bring dimension to what I was doing. It was seeing what this business was capable of doing to someone that made me actually be able to contribute something to it in an interesting way. My dreams of lobster mashed potatoes became replaced with dreams of being happy. I found myself thrilled to feel like a stranger in this industry.
Though I still find myself caught in the space between "hope" and "no's" my disappointment has changed the way it manifests itself in my life. The good news is that now, though I don't find myself misrepresenting my occupation, I can say confidently that I am a writer. Though I don't think of myself as "handsome", I think of myself as a real person. Though I don't know good ole Gary, I have some amazing people in my life. I love the projects I'm working on and I love the parts of my psyche that I've been able to access through them. Though my life isn't the one I thought I wanted when I moved here, I realize that those early desires weren't desires at all but place holders and signposts leading me in the direction of what was ultimately meant to be. Maybe one day, I'll have a business card again, but in the meantime, I've got a life I enjoy and that's good enough.