Monday, January 7, 2008

Cathy Goes to Hollywood: Day #1

June 6, 2005

A series of fortunate events has landed me in Hollywood, where I’ve been hired as one of a team of six screenwriters for the show Veronica Mars, a sexy, witty hour-long detective drama that airs on UPN. When the show was picked up for its second season, creator/executive producer Rob Thomas, a friend of mine, asked me to consider writing for the show. He sent me DVDs of the first season and told me, “I absolutely think you have the voice for this.” I watched the show, and I began to believe him. I packed my bags and put my life in Washington on hold for a year in order to experiment with a writing assignment unlike any I’d ever had before.

It’s now 6 p.m. and I’ve returned home from my first day on the on job. The sun is still shining, Stinky is purring happily at my feet, and I have cold beer next to me. So far, so good. Here’s a brief rundown of my first day on the new job.

6:00 Alarm goes off.
6:15 Out of bed for first cup of coffee.
6:20-9:00 Fuss around apartment. Spend 20 minutes on Veronica Mars script ideas and an hour and 45 minutes deciding what to wear.
9:00 Leave for work.
9:10 Arrive work. Way early. Circle block so as not to appear too brown-nosy.
9:30 Enter office. Am assigned former writer’s old office. Spend 15 minutes organizing desk. Find old toothbrush and tongue cleaner in bottom drawer.
10:00-10:45 Lounge around in “bull pen” (area in center of offices furnished with old orange couches), bullshitting with other writers and accepting compliments for the lemon cookies I brought in to distract other writers from my lame story ideas.
10:45-12:15 Writers gather in Writers Room to toss around ideas. I remain almost entirely silent, absorbing their brilliance. Learn many secrets about next season. In one small coup, I get to use my “designated hitter rule has got to go” line. Also, at 11:04, I whip out my mid-morning snack of ants-on-a-log. [Other writer] claims she loves this, and that I will have to kick a cat before she hates me.
12:16 I notice that my shirt is on inside-out.
12:17 Slip to bathroom to rearrange clothes.
12:18-1:24 Writers discuss multiple options for ordering out for lunch with Alex, Rob’s mohawked surfer assistant.
1:25 Decide to order from Kookoorookoo. (I get the California Burrito).
1:25-1:45 Hash out more story ideas while waiting for lunch.
2:30-4:00 Tour new offices next door. Much consternation ensues. New offices are decorated like a Nickelodeon set. I expect to end up with smallish office that smells like cat pee, but I get large office with no natural light and a mysterious stain on the wall (see photo).
4:00-5:30ish Back to writing room to pitch ideas. Long segue into discussion of Corey Haim clip on recent episode of Daily Show. We do extensive research on Haim. Another long discussion about The Lost Boys ensues. Mild argument about what year the movie came out (1987). Segues into discussion about Teen Wolf and Teen Wolf II.
5:35 Rob claps hands, announces we should call it a day, as Spurs are on at six.
5:36 Rob compliments me on lemon cookies again.
5:38 The writers and Alex gather in the parking lot to salute Rob as he leaves (apparently an end-of-the-day tradition created by Alex).
5:39 Writers duck back inside, pretend to be busy.
5:41 Certain that Rob is gone and it’s safe to leave, I drive home.

Hollywood Week 2: Top Ten Hollywood Highlights from Week 1

June 11, 2005

Tuesday and Beyond—manage to get all of my clothes on right-side-out (although when I was checking my shirt for armpit freshness Tuesday morning, I poked myself in the eye and walked around all day winking like that Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s grapefruit squirts George. Grooming at this new gig is fraught with peril.)

Continue to make it to work in under 15 minutes, but stop showing up early, as no one else does, and end hanging around in the parking lot like a moron. Apparently, when everyone showed up at 9:20 the first day, they were just showing off for the new kid.

Tuesday, June 7—spent all day in a productive story-breaking session in the Writers’ Room. Oh yeah, except for the 12:30-2:30 workout break. I go to a fancy-pants gym in Glendale called The Total Woman. Bonded with co-workers in locker room when I admit that I’ve forgotten post-workout underwear and therefore, will be Going Commando for the remainder of the day.

Alex, Rob’s assistant, goes grocery shopping and loads the staff kitchen with goodies (root beer! Tootsie Rolls! String cheese!)

Tuesday, 3:10 p.m.: One of the writers tells funny story about being pantsed in ninth grade P.E. while climbing the peg board in too-tight shorts he had to borrow from the loaner bin.

Tuesday, 3:20 p.m.: Goofing around on internet with co-worker, we dig up photo of Tony Danza crashing golf cart. We giggle. Rob shoots us the Evil Eye.

In an act that truly personifies just how quickly the foundation of my being is collapsing, I purchase a TV Guide Wednesday night.

Writers’ Room discussion strays from story-breaking to random discussions of pop culture trivia at least 18 times a day. Long segue into band name origins with a question about which band, besides Steely Dan, is named after a dildo. No one knows. I apply librarian skills and find nothing. Friend from home suggests via email that we just imagine all bands are named are named after dildos. Try it.

Besides pop-culture segues, typical WR bird-walking includes telling humiliating personal stories about ourselves. I describe meeting former boyfriend’s parents for the first time and tracking dog shit onto their expensive Persian rug. Immediate bonding ensues.

Hollywood, Week 3: The Woman with Two Brains

June 2005

The Warner Brothers megalopolis takes up blocks and blocks of Burbank—all of it neatly landscaped, carefully guarded, and tidily obscured by neatly groomed shrubbery and gates and security guards. I work for Warner Brothers now—the logo that I always associated with Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam now adorns my weekly paycheck. But aside from that reminder, little else connects me to WB. Although the studio is omnipresent, I drive away from the country-club media enclave on my way to work. The headquarters for Veronica Mars—the UPN show I’ve been hired to write for-- are located on a tiny, quasi-industrial street in North Hollywood—a.k.a NoHo—an area remarkable only for the immensity of its potholes and the discount liquor stores on every corner (the one on our block, Circus Liquors, features a 20 foot neon clown.) We share our street with a mysterious warehouse that is undoubtedly a porn studio and a donut factory that stinks up the neighborhood.

Although technically our work day begins at 10 a.m., it’s usually 10:30 or 11:00 before we get to the Writers Room. In my old life, 11 a.m. marked the halfway point of my workday, and I sometimes don’t know what to do with this down time at work. I get up at 6 a.m., go to the gym for an hour, return home to read/pet Stynki/watch the news and then still get to work a half an hour early. But frankly, there’s not that much to do—no mail to go through, no scripts to revise (so far), no lessons to plan, calls to make, or meetings to arrange. It’s a little disconcerting. The other writers are often early, too, but generally hang around in their offices and I obsess that they’re doing something I should be doing. Chances are, they’re surfing the ‘net or sending email, but I’m paranoid that they’re writing The Best Veronica Mars script ever, the one that will awe Rob, stun the network, and capture the Emmy, and send me back to Bellingham.

Writing for television is unlike any writing venture I’ve ever been involved in. The six of us—me, Diane Ruggiero, John Enbom, Phil Klemmer, Dayna North, and Rob-- “coffee up,” join forces around the conference table, and then Rob claps his hands together and throws out the challenge of the day—so far we’ve been “breaking story” (creating a three-part narrative arc with specific “beats” or plot points) for the first few episodes of the new season. The brainstorming list morphs into specific choices about the plot and the characters, and then we break that list into a “cold open,” –the brief hook that precedes the title sequence of the show—and the “beats”—plot points—for the four acts. Each act is timed according to commercial breaks and ends with an “act out”—a minor cliffhanger that will draw the audience back. The writer assigned to the episode writes a “one-pager”—a 1-2 page explanation of the story that is sent to network execs for comments. Rob argues with them about changes, and we negotiate revisions. Eventually, the script is written and drafts are sent to the network, revisions are made, final scripts are distributed, and magic is made.

One of the strangest things I’ve encountered so far, besides the fact that my co-workers wear sweatpants to work and use the word “cocksucker” regularly, is that we don’t talk about the process—there’s no discussion of writing so far, just storytelling. And it’s intense, fast-paced talking—people chiming in around the table with “What if…?” and “Maybe…” pitching ideas that are received by co-execs Rob and Diane with enthusiastic “that fucking rocks!” or the sort of silent-lip-twisting that requires no words. I’m used to faculty meetings and in-services where I could complete crossword puzzles and write silly notes to my co-workers and make grocery lists. In the Writers’ Room, mind-wandering like this, even for a few seconds, means losing the thread of the developing story and spending the rest of the hour trying to figure it out without asking dorky questions.

I often feel, sitting around the table, that I should be contributing more to the discussion. I’ve always considered my writing strengths to be voice and character development, not plotting. But in the two weeks I’ve worked with the VM team, I’ve learned to be a more attentive listener, to sit still and absorb the complexities of the growing plot, and to think in terms of “beats” and “misleads”—to seek out the clever action or twist, and add what I can. I spend a lot of time sitting in awe of my co-writers—Enbom always, always has the quickest, wittiest quips, and Klemmer is an ace at following the logic of a storyline and revealing its problems. Dayna is a stream-of-consciousness brainstormer whose talkativeness often leads to a brilliant plot development. Diane is the courageous one, pushing us past the easy answer to the more tasty beat. Rob, however, is the true brain behind VM—the engineer who sits quietly and patiently, listens to our ideas, takes no notes, and then busts out with, “That’s excellent—I love it—here’s what we’re going to do…” I’m the quiet one right now, believe it or not, the thoughtful, nodding, pensive newcomer whose contributions are infrequent and so far, often off the mark. But I’m also a learner and a thinker. And I’m loosening up. I’m finding my niche, slowly, but certainly.

I pass the walls of the Warner Brothers compound as I drive home each day. They are adorned with posters the size of swimming pools advertising their classic successes—Gone With the Wind, Terminator—their TV hits—The West Wing, Smallville—and their current releases—Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Must Love Dogs. In another life, this gigantic advertising would have sent me into a rant about commercialism and the effects of TV and movies on the human brain. But that was then. This is now. I’ve been on the job three weeks, and this is how my brain has changed: when I see those gargantuan advertisements, instead of cringing at the media and its deplorable subjugation of the American mind, I see those posters and smile. All I can think is that there are so many stories. And so many amazing, entertaining ways to tell them. How lucky I am to be among the storytellers.

Hollywood Week 4: Prozac to My Ears: Belben’s Hollywood Soundtrack

I love music almost as much as I love books, but for cruel and unexplainable reasons, the gods have left me completely devoid of any musical ability. Nevertheless, I know what I like. Here’s what’s been playing in my head this week.

“Beverly Hills” –Weezer
Monday, June 20, 8:37 a.m.: I stub my toe on the corner of my Murphy bed for the f------ last time, drive to Hollywood, and rent an apartment on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine, smack in the middle of the action. Unlike the place I’m currently living in, the new one is unfurnished, so until I get paid, I’ll be living with a pile of books, a litter box (for Stink√ę, not me) and an inflatable neon pink couch I bought at a garage sale. On the bright side, there are poolside movies, a kick-ass gym with TVs on every treadmill, and a sushi restaurant and a Borders on the ground floor. If only there were a liquor store, I’d never have to leave the block.

“Naked and Famous” –The Presidents of the United States of America

I’ve temporarily joined an all-women’s gym in Glendale. It’s clean and classy, but there are no famous people, and there’s no one naked to look at unless I become a lesbian who fancies unshaven middle-aged Armenian women in granny panties. It wasn’t until I began finishing my workouts in half the time that I realized how social I was at my old gym in Bellingham. Even if I was just talking to drug runners and guys whose leg hair had been rubbed off by their tube socks, I miss that.

“Celebrity” –Brad Paisley

The truth is, I haven’t seen anyone famous yet, unless you count Lorenzo Lamas, and I don’t, and besides, he was presenting an award at some B-list pat-ourselves-on-the-back awards show where I got shushed by a gay guy at our table and the gift bag for the evening contained a Swiss Army knife knock-off and a Kenny G CD. I did see a guy at Baja Fresh who I thought was John Cusack for a split second, but then I looked closer and realized that he had no eyebrows or eyelashes and therefore could not be John Cusack, and if he were, my decades-long Lloyd Dobler infatuation would immediately screech to a halt.

“Jessie’s Girl” –Rick Springfield, ALBUM

The writers’ room continues to be a source of Hollywood gossip and random pop culture trivia feasts. This week, for example, I learned that Rick Springfield—Dr. Noah Drake, General Hospital—auditioned for the part of Aaron Echols (ultimately awarded to Harry Hamlin). This discussion inspired us to sing Jessie’s Girl all afternoon and attempt to replace the line “I wanna tell her that I love her but the point is probably moot” with “better” rhymes. I proceed to have a dream in which Rick Springfield shows up at the BEHS library in a wetsuit to tell me that I need a retainer for my bottom teeth.

“Road to Joy” –Bright Eyes

Before I got to L.A., all I heard about the city was that the driving conditions sucked and danger lurked behind every stop sign. Here’s the deal: I’d rather drive from my office in Burbank to my Hollywood home than drive from Southcenter to Tacoma any day. I spend less time in my car here than I did in Bellingham—it takes me ten minutes to get to work, and once I move, I’ll be taking the subway, so I won’t have to drive at all. I’ve gotten on and off any number of freeways (the 5, the 134, the 101…) dozens of times without ending up in South Central L.A., begging for my life. Knock wood.

“Hurt” –Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash sings Nine Inch Nails. How fucking cool is that?

“Closer to Fine” –Indigo Girls

Last week, my TV Guide horoscope advised me that the week would be “one of the most promising times of the year as Mars, planet of energy, moves in your favor. If there are any creative projects you would like to develop, now is the time to give them your full attention.” I’m totally not making up that stuff about Mars. You can fact-check it yourself. However, I’m pretty convinced that I won’t be turning to TV Guide for my horoscope again soon. I had a few moments of soul-crushing homesickness, artistic angst, and unbelievably mind-blowing heartbreak this week. There is, however, more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line, and the less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.

Hollywood Week 5: Dear Friends Who Own Stock in IKEA: You’re Welcome

July 5, 2005

“If you have rolls and rolls of old wrapping paper lying around, then why not put them to good use by hanging them up? Choose one with a cool pattern and frame it on its own or add some personal touches by gluing on some photos.” This is the sorry-ass advice when I went surfing for ideas about how to accentuate the bare, 12-foot-high white walls in my new apartment. I like wrapping paper as much as the next gal, but, um, I’m not going to be using it for interior decorating projects in my heart-of-Hollywood home.

What I am going to be doing, however, is financing the college education of IKEA stockholders worldwide, since I just spent my first paycheck trying to purchase enough Swedish particle board to fill the empty cavern I now call home. Three days later, I can barely type because I have calluses up to wrists from churning a teeny tiny Allen wrench in a hundred billion circles. Also, the Swedes forgot to bring my mattress and now they’re pretending I didn’t actually buy one. Turn to page 121 in your IKEA catalogue. See the Klippan sofa? The loveseat size one in unyielding black leather? If you squint, perhaps you can imagine my ass hanging over the edge as I’m curled into an immovable fetal position with my head wedged under my cat for eight excruciating hours. Forget Osama. I’m going after Nils and Lars today, dammit, and I’m getting my mattress.

The main thing that attracted me to this new place is its convenience—I can stash my car in the garage after work and never have to use it again. There’s a movie theater across the street, a music store a block away, and a bar, a coffee shop, a bookstore, and a sushi restaurant on the ground level. On Sundays, there’s a farmers’ market on the street behind my building. That being said, I did take an exploratory drive around Hollywood on Saturday, discovering the nearest Target, Ralph’s and—rejoice with me, o thrifters—Goodwill within a six block radius of home. I stood in line at the Goodwill to purchase an inflatable mattress behind a dreadlocked man who was asking the cashier if they sold crucifixes because he was a vampire slayer and needed new tools.

I’ve mostly avoided other dangers. Although my car was side-swiped by a very nice girl named Alyson, nothing too scary has happened to me. A man in a Paul Klee t-shirt did seem to be following me around the block the other day, but he was about eighty and had only one real leg and was carrying a wrinkled Jack-in-the-Box drink cup from like, February. At the time I was hauling a new alarm clock and a six-pack, so I could have knocked him out had he been able to hobble my direction in a way that seemed even vaguely threatening.

The neighborhood is full of cool stuff to do besides dodge vampire hunters and one-legged stalkers. The world-famous Arclight Cinema is right across the street--home to many movie premiers and also the world's largest geodesic dome. I’ve spent my next paycheck at Amoeba Music (how’s this for schizophrenia? Yesterday I bought Warren Zevon’s Greatest Hits, Kenny Rogers’ Favorites, and The Cure’s Snow.) When I’m not dodging crazy people or spending money on music, I’m at Borders, reading their magazines and doing research for the show.

Hollywood Week 6: In Which I Try to Look Busy

July 14, 2005

I returned to VMHQ from a long weekend home, driving from the Burbank airport to the office Monday morning after an ass-crack-of-dawn flight that followed my first all-nighter since studying for my college chemistry final in 1989. I came to work intending to make up for the sleep I didn’t get on the plane by napping on the sofa in the bullpen, but I barely had time to tell everyone how I saw Hilary Swank lounging in purple bra and panties on her friends’ dock at Lake Samish before I was summoned to the Writers Room ALONE by the boss.

Each episode so far has been a collaborative effort—the six of us gather around the table and hammer out the A, B, and C storylines. With a group of funny people generating ideas and discussing rapport-building topics such music and personal hygiene, the Writers Room hums with humor and energy and occasional bolts of genius. But after each episode has been plotted, the individual assigned to write the script peels off to spend time alone composing, leaving fewer and fewer brains at the table.

I’ll be writing episode 5—possibly alone, but probably with Klemmer (“Klemben”). Since everyone else was busily working on their scripts, it was just me and Rob left in the Writers Room to break the story. And Monday morning, after two days testing the limits of my liver, no sleep, and 4 hours on a plane, I was not ready to be brilliant and witty and clever. I came to work still wearing my swimsuit under my clothes, for god’s sake.

The good thing about this job is that wearing a bikini under one’s Howard Dean for America tank top doesn’t really attract attention. Aside from someone telling me that I should’ve worn the shirt more often when Dean was still campaigning, nobody even noticed that I was wearing beachwear and clothing that I’d obviously (not) slept in. This is an office, after all, where the guys rinse off in the Bivouac Buddy, the camouflage-curtained outdoor shower installed in the back parking lot. So there’s a good chance that I could’ve worn just the bikini top and there would’ve been little comment.

Being alone at the table with just Rob and our writers’ assistant has been more than slightly nerve wracking. With the group surrounding me, my lame story pitches just get lost in the cacophony. Now, when I toss out some little turd of an idea, there aren’t six people there to ignore it and quickly move on. Now there are two people, just looking at me like I’ve got an enormous, vacuous gap in my skull where my brain should be. I’ve spent most of the week alternating between thinking I’m a dork and worrying that everyone else thinks I’m a dork. Maybe I should take a clue from George Costanza and just pitch one good idea and then leave the room. Soon, everyone will think I’m brilliant.

For those of you monitoring my descent, you should know that I spent time on Tuesday purchasing a TV and ordering cable. I took some slack around the office because I only bought a 20-inch set, as opposed to some 60 inch behemoth that I could write off on my taxes, but my main concern was simply to own one that I can lift. Please rest assured that if you visit me in Hollywood, we’ll find ways to amuse ourselves besides watching TV, although my co-workers did harass me into ordering the Premium Plus Package with two hundred billion channels and HBO, so there is plenty of crap to choose from should we run out of other entertainment.

It’s funny that one reason I almost chose not to take this job is that I didn’t want to sacrifice my free time. A lifetime of job-free summers (well, there were a few years when I picked strawberries and shelved books) made me hesitant about giving up my three months of freedom. And here it is, mid-July, and I feel like I’ve done less work than I did in the two semesters I spent on my high school yearbook staff, something I never imagined possible. I’m trying to enjoy this space. I can tell, from the writers who are sequestered in their offices, wearing the letters off their keyboards, that my days of napping and 1000-word emails are not for long.

Enjoy, and thank you for joining me in this moment of silence.

Hollywood Week 7: I See Crazy People

July 24, 2005

Monday, July 18
Temperatures rose to 100˚ in Burbank, and excessive AC use caused a power outage, so we didn’t go into the office today. Like a snow day, except instead of sledding, I sunned myself at the pool. I took a lunch break and perused the TV listings. Why on God’s green earth does the Discovery Channel air something called “Youth of Third Reich” for five hours in the middle of the day?

Tuesday, July 19
Today, the AC worked when we arrived, and then blitzed out just as the temperature soared to 98˚ in Burbank at about 1:00. We took turns standing in front of the fridge to cool off, made Screwdrivers, and shortly thereafter called it a day.

Wednesday, July 20
John brought in the DSM IV after we talk about how entertaining it is to read about the mental disorders we don’t have. I read it for the entire morning and now have a raging case of medical student syndrome. I have everything from Asperger’s Syndrome to vascular dementia.

Rob’s hair cutter, Kim, came in to give him a haircut, and ended up doing the same for his dad, and Mike, the script coordinator. We have a long debate about whether or not Diane should get bangs and decide no, so Kim whisks Phil off to Rob’s office and he returns with a Mohawk. I’m sorry I didn’t get my mustache waxed, as sweat is collecting on it. The heat and humidity broke into a five-minute rainstorm late in the afternoon. Everyone rushed outside to watch it rain. See what I mean? Todos son locos.

I go for a walk every day when I get home from work, before it’s dark and the really crazy people come out. Today I passed a guy on the street with LONG LIVE GLAM tattooed in huge letters across the front of his neck. I have a hard time enduring needles at the doctor’s office, so I’m not going to be getting any giant neck tattoos. Squeamishness aside, what would I even write on myself permanently? About the only thing I can think of that will be as true twenty years from now as it is today is HERE I GO AGAIN.

Thursday, July 21
Big news from the network: CBS has decided to air four of last season’s episodes of Veronica Mars, starting next week. This is HUGE. UPN isn’t one of the major networks, so we depend on word-of- mouth and advertising to gain viewers. Having another network ask to show our program is awesome publicity, and should garner us some new fans right before the season begins. We also just cast Steve Guttenberg as Mayor Woodman (his campaign bumper stickers might read "Supportin' a Woody"), and we also cast former Playmate Charisma Carpenter in a recurring role.

Friday, July 22
The boss was away, Phil was gone, and Dayna brought her two Chihuahuas for an impromptu Bring Your Dog to Work Day (I also brought my two imaginary teacup poodles, Fiona and Ernestine). I spent most of the morning working on the outline for my first script, which Phil and I will be writing together. I’m excited because my episode takes place during Homecoming Week, and features two break-ups, a kidnapping, a crazy psychic, and a girlfight. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, my episode has no sex.

Saturday, July 23
I go to a cocktail party for TV writers at the Beverly Hills Hilton. I drink too many gin and tonics while Dayna gets interviewed by several reporters interested in talking to a Woman of Color. I go home and watch four episodes of Rescue Me back to back and do a couple crafty things. Y’all need to come liven things up down here.