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In a Heartless Place

The Assholes of Hollywood

by RUTH FOWLER

Once upon a time there was a young female screenwriter (Writer) who got employed to adapt a book into a feature film. In order to snag the job, Writer wrote twenty pages of the script for free, and sent it to the Producer as a sample so that they would hire her. Producer liked what he saw and employed her on the spot for one draft, and one rewrite of the script.

As with every single job there had ever been, Writer did not just do one draft and one rewrite for Producer: Writer did about seven different versions of the script for this price. Writer didn’t mind: this is how you get work in Hollywood, and every writer knows that the first draft is never going to be enough. Even those writers who are A-list are rarely going to really hand in a ‘first’ draft.

Producer seemed happy with the script, until Director dropped out to work on a large budget movie. Producer brooded for a while, and six months later approached Writer with some ideas for significant, radical changes in direction. Writer expressed her concerns about these ideas, said she didn’t think she could do them, but offered a compromise of changes and edits she could do. Producer seemed happy to proceed, paid Writer some more money, and so Writer worked exclusively on the rewrite for a month, and sent the new version of the script in.

A week or so later, Producer emailed Writer one afternoon and asked her to come into the office the next morning for a meeting to talk about the script and make some changes. Writer was working on a TV show the next day, and was unable to come in. Later in the evening, Writer was going on vacation for a week to a faraway land with no phone or internet, and upon her return, would be flying to New York to research a script. Writer suggested that rather than wait for her return to Los Angeles which would be in 3-4 weeks time, Producer call her in a week, the day she return from her vacation in the faraway land. Writer was surprised to find that she received numerous missed calls from the Producer while she was in the all-day TV meeting, none of which left a voicemail. She alerted her agent to the fact Producer was trying to get in touch with her and she would be unavailable until XXX date, suggested perhaps her agent make sure Producer was OK as he seemed very intent on getting hold of her even when she said she wasn’t available, and then Writer left for her week’s vacation.

Upon her return, Agent said that Producer had been calling Agent’s office all week very urgently. Agent was also on vacation that week and had called Producer as soon as she got back in the office. Producer was, by this time, very irate and insisted that the script (draft 7) Writer had produced was unusable, and he would have to hire a new writer to start from scratch.

When Writer heard this news, she was not too surprised. She had felt that the numerous phone calls she had received from Producer when she had informed him she was unavailable had indicated a certain degree of impatience and displeasure over the news that she was indisposed. She had sought advice from a friendly
fowlerscreenwriter friend with more experience than her, who had said, “If you’ve been paid for 1 draft and done 8, that’s insane. Is there some serious possibility hanging out there — Cate Blanchett has some notes — or is the producer just churning? At this point, the notes better be incredibly minor.  He’s had a lot of bites at the apple and if you’re not almost there, you’re probably not going anyplace. As for ignoring him, you’ve responded.  He just didn’t like what he heard. Sounds like a typical guy to me….”

Writer was sad to leave the script, and sadder still that her busy schedule had prompted Producer, who had seemed extremely happy with her work up until that point, to suddenly decide to fire her. One week he was calling her into the office, and the next he was firing her. It seemed more than a little petty. She tweeted about it, making sure not to name any names:

Producer called me into studio last week. I said I was busy until next week. This week he says he wants to fire me. Oh the politics.

… and then thought no more about it. Until a week or so later, Agent called sounding very confused. “Producer said you’ve been tweeting about him, and that you’ll never work again in Hollywood if that’s how you talk about people.”

Writer laughed, and immediately recalled the tweet she had fired off. “Is Producer stalking me on twitter?” she asked Agent, very confused. “Why is he googling me if he thinks the script is terrible and doesn’t want to work with me again?”

Agent sounded perplexed. “He told me someone in his office alerted him to the fact you were sounding off over twitter about him.”

“Well, that’s obviously bullshit. I didn’t use his name, I’ve never met anyone from his office, and someone would have to be really clued into the situation to know who I was talking about, given I’m working with about eight producers at the moment. It sounds like he fired me because he was annoyed I wasn’t available, and is winding himself up by checking my reaction, which he hoped would be contrite and penitent. I do find it ridiculous that one day he’s calling me into his office for notes, and the next he’s firing me through you. It’s like playground politics.”

The more Writer thought about it, the uneasier she felt. Her twitter feed had been predominantly about her pregnancy and impending motherhood – a fact she had been careful to conceal from Producer and those she had been working with because she felt it was unprofessional to share her personal life with them, and she knew many people had strange preconceptions about women, employment and pregnancy. He had obviously seen all these tweets, either before firing her or after, and yet still felt compelled to call Agent with a veiled threat that Writer would never work again. Writer felt that for politics sake, she should call and apologize to Producer, but she felt uncomfortable doing so when she knew she had done nothing wrong except be firm and polite when Producer had wanted to see her when she was working on the TV show. Apologize for tweeting? Hell, it was the 21st century. That would be like apologizing for farting in bed.

Agent told Writer to take care and be careful what she said. Writer had heard this warning before. Writer had strong views and did not like the dishonesty which often passes for courtesy in the entertainment industry. Once a Producer in London had told her to never write about —— ——- (Man) in negative terms, because his power and influence was so great, he could destroy your career. An actor had once been quoted in a newspaper saying something critical about Man, and he had never worked on anything Man had ever funded again. Which was quite a lot of cable and TV shows, because Man was very rich. Writer hadn’t ever felt the need to say anything critical about Man because other people did it very well without her, but she felt annoyed that in order to work, she had to censor herself and be aware that sometimes the people funding movies and TV shows were very big political figures who were often involved in controversial corporations and shady wheeler-dealing.

Writer knew that it wasn’t just because she was a writer, and therefore pretty low down on the Hollywood food chain, but also because she was female that she often butted heads with a ragingly misogynistic industry. She’d once worked for an Independent European Producer (EP) who had a habit of getting extremely drunk and calling her at random hours of the day to scream down the phone “YOUR AGENT IS A FUCKING CUNT” and to inform her that the Oscar winning female Producers he was working with were “Stupid fucking snotty bitches who think they’re better than anyone else”. After EP introduced her to the Director of the script she had written for them, and he decided to remove the very few female characters they had in the script and replace them with men, Writer told EP she was unable to make the changes Director had asked for and she thought it would be better if she left the project so they could move forward. EP screamed at her down the phone, and she never heard from them again.

Writer hoped to work with more women in the future, or at least men who didn’t seem to consider her little more than a secretary (no offense to secretaries), but Writer was pragmatic about the chances of this happening in the film and TV industry: it was very remote. The one Female Producer (FP) she had worked with, and whom had friended her on facebook, had taken huge offense to Writer’s anti-racist political views, writing belligerent comments on every article she posted, or taking issue with everything she expressed. Writer was uncomfortable arguing back because FP was, in normal life, a lovely lady, very successful, very influential, very clever and extremely important in the film industry. Writer felt that she was being backed into a corner where she could not defend herself without offending FP, and she could not just ignore FP’s comments without implicitly condoning the sometimes offensive views she expressed. She felt that if she blocked FP, then she would cause even more trouble. She wished FP would just leave her alone and quit taking offense at the concept of White Privilege.

In the end, Writer stopped posting political articles on facebook, and FP stopped writing on Writer’s wall, and Writer thought everything was OK again and she could see FP in person without it being too difficult and awkward. However, it turned out FP had just defriended her, and Writer had the sinking feeling that they would probably never work together again.

Writer considered penning a first person screed about her difficult and frustrating experiences in the Film and TV industry, but her husband pointed out that, as Producer had said, she would probably never work in Hollywood again, and that if she wanted to be successful as a writer, she should delete her twitter, delete her facebook, never, ever say what she thought, endeavor to eradicate her personality, stop writing the opinion pieces about politics she wrote in her spare time, quit doing political activism and community organizing, always agree with people who paid her wages, and be extremely gracious when someone fired her, sending them warm and understanding emails which were apologetic and humble. Frustration was a no no. No one likes to know that the person they just fired might harbor some negative feelings towards them. People like to think that firing people shows employees who’s boss and teaches them a lesson about respect.

Writer instead decided to put out a plea to find all the other people in the film and TV industry who wanted to make good movies and good TV and work with good, honest, outspoken, opinionated people. Husband vomited into his mouth a little, choked on it, and suggested she move to Portland, make pickles and write critically acclaimed obscure literary fiction that no one would ever read instead. Writer answered that she couldn’t do that as she wasn’t a white male and didn’t have an MFA. Husband agreed.

Ruth Fowler is a journalist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She’s the author of Girl Undressed. She can be followed on Twitter at @fowlerruth.