I’ve mentioned a few times that I worked part-time at a financial management firm when I was in film school and after, which is ironic since finance is an area in which I’ve never really had any interest. I mean, I like money just fine, but actually acquiring it is clearly not a major preoccupation for me, which you can tell by, among other things, my relationship choices: teachers, filmmakers and musicians don’t make great sugar daddies. But the job itself was fine, and the people were nice, so even for several years when I was starting out as a freelancer, I went back occasionally to put in hours and boost my $400/week income in between independent film gigs. Given that there was no overtime in the non-union world and I was working 70+hour weeks, I was basically earning $5.71 per hour to do things like boom a scene in the now-defunct Great Jones Diner in the type of 90-degree summer weather that turned that place into a microwave oven — not to mention that I was standing on the counter, which, since it placed me close to the ceiling, probably added at least 10 additional degrees of heat. I was sweating so profusely that actor Ian Hart, who was sitting at the counter for that scene (along with Barbara Hershey, who looked like her face was melting at that point in her career even when it wasn’t hot), amused himself by sticking napkins to my legs. Thanks in part to making the move to Brooklyn in 1995, however, I was finally able to support myself just on film production work, and so I was able to retire from financial management for good. Or so I thought, until one day, my phone rang and it was the guy who had been my boss at the financial management firm, who I’ll call Avery.
“We have this crazy client,” he said. This wasn’t surprising. All of their clients were crazy, which caused me to ask the question, Why is everyone with lots of money crazy? Is it inbreeding? Or simply that money gives them the freedom to go truly and unstoppably batshit? “She wants to remake Dr. Zhivago. We need somebody to write her a business plan to take to the publishing company so she can get the rights, and we thought of you.”
“Uh, wow, I don’t know, I’ve never done that. What would it entail?”
“It’s mostly bullshit,” said Avery. “We’ll help you with it. And we’ll pay you $10,000 to do it. Oh, but you’re going to have to buy a suit.”
While I have a lot to complain about in the freelance world (as you may have noticed), I am very grateful that I don’t have to spend my days in any world that requires me to wear a suit. To me, the suit represents the worst of corporate America: the required uniformity; the crushing of individuality that tracks every cog into its proper groove according to rules that have more to do with just being rules than with logic or comfort or basic humanity; and I’ll just say one more thing: PANTYHOSE. It was therefore kind of a cruel joke that someone was now offering to pay me $10,000 to buy one. But while I said money isn’t a preoccupation of mine, that doesn’t mean I don’t like being offered a lot of it. Did I mention I was making like $5.71 an hour?
So I read Dr. Zhivago and I went to Ann Taylor to buy a piece of clothing that I’d sworn I would never own. To rationalize, it wasn’t really a suit. It was a nice black jacket and a conservative, greenish beige shell dress — I ended up seeing the same dress on an actress in a Stay Free Maxi Pad commercial I was booming a few days later, if that gives you a mental picture. I also got an attractive but really painful pair of black heels (I would have found any heels painful, really), hoping that there wouldn’t be too much walking involved, and, yes, pantyhose. When I put it all on, I did feel like something of an imposter, but since that was what I was, essentially, in this situation, that was okay. Even if I didn’t know what I was doing, at least I looked like someone who did, which made me feel slightly more confident as I headed to the client’s apartment for the meeting.
Crazy Lady Who I’ll Call Gloria lived in a penthouse on the top floor of Trump Tower, and had had more plastic surgery than anybody I’d ever met — until I was introduced, briefly, to her mother, who occupied the adjoining apartment, and who had a face like Silly Putty. This was during the tour of the place, which was all windows, with this amazing, wrap-around view and blindingly reflective floors like nothing I’d ever seen before.
“I had it made out of that material they use to pour floors in operating rooms in hospitals,” Gloria explained, in a tone that managed to sound both boasting and bored at the same time, which I soon came to see was her MO. “It makes you feel like we’re in the clouds. Because we are. I came up with the idea but I’m going to give my architect all of the credit, because he’s quite well-known and you know, I don’t do this to earn my living. But it’s going to be everywhere.”
We passed an immense fish tank, full of colorful and exotic-looking tropical fish. “She loves me,” said Gloria, pointing to an orange one. “She was sick and I nursed her back to health. She really sort of idolizes me. Fish are very intelligent.”
This was my first inkling that Gloria was beyond the ordinary amount of cray-cray that I had come to expect in wealthy people, and things kind of went downhill from there — in particular, when we started talking about what, exactly, I was going to put in the business plan.
“I was thinking Harrison Ford, because we belong to the same club – and of course, I’m sure he’d want to do it. And that beautiful woman in the new Zorro movie, she’s going to be a star…”
She was talking about Catherine Zeta Jones, so technically, she was right about that. But just when I’d think we were getting into some concrete information I could use in the business plan, like about the film itself and the plan for making it and where the financing was going to come from she’d go off on a tangent, like about merchandising.
“And of course a perfume — or perhaps a perfume and a cologne, named ‘Lara’ and ‘Zhivago.’” There would also be dolls, music boxes, and a cocktail. “I’m planning on doing it with Seagrams…”
“Okay, but do you want to talk more about casting first, because, for the publishing company to —“
“Well, I don’t really want to get into anything concrete before I get the rights. In fact, you shouldn’t really be taking notes.” She gave the yellow pad on which I was writing (this was the 90s) a glare. I stopped taking notes. “You see, I’m actually quite experienced in this area because I raised the money for a short film that I executive produced, directed by ___.” She blinked at me when I didn’t have the properly impressed reaction to the name, which I didn’t know. “The photographer? He’s also a Royal? And I did it by becoming the first female backgammon champion of the world. It was quite fun, actually…”
And then we were off onto that. No matter how I tried to keep the conversation on the business plan, Gloria basically wouldn’t listen to anything I said unless she could take it to mean that I was agreeing with her, in which case she would fasten on it immediately for a few seconds before going off on another digression of her own. By the end, especially since I had no notes, it was hard for me to know which ones exactly we had discussed.
“She loved your miniseries idea,” said Avery, when we followed up on the phone later.
“What miniseries idea?” Had I even said the word “miniseries”? Oh God, maybe I had. “Look, Avery, do you really think she has any chance of making any of this work?”
“So…we’re writing her something which is just totally bullshit? Should we be doing that?” This was clearly back when I had scruples.
“She’s had this dream,” said Avery carefully, “and if we help her get something she can present to the publishing company to at least try to get the rights, we’ll be helping her fulfill that dream.”
“Well, I guess we’ll be helping her get some closure…” Plus, I was going to get paid $10,000. Frankly, it was hard to feel bad for somebody with that much money to spend on pursuing their own ludicrous fantasies, but more importantly, I didn’t even know how I would be able to tell Gloria the truth about how ludicrous they were. No wonder nobody ever says “no” to people like that, and just takes their money. Gloria had hardly let me get a word in, and even when I did, she didn’t actually hear it if it even remotely resembled “no.”
“And God forbid she does get the rights,” said Avery.
In the end, we never were able to write a draft that satisfied her, so the deal went south, and I never got any money. Perhaps I just wasn’t enough of finagler (which was, amusingly, a nickname I had in film school) to close the deal. I’ve since discovered that selling bullshit to crazy rich people is a huge part of the film business, but it’s still not one that I can seem to enjoy, or become particularly good at, even though I’ve seen a lot of people go pretty far with that skill alone.
In the end, I was left with just the suit. Oh, and this story. Too bad, in my business, you can’t just tell the story without having to sell the bullshit.