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December 08, 2004

Chapter Two

I came out of the bathroom with 30 seconds left on the ticker, and started walking briskly towards the conference room. Miranda was trotting immediately behind.

"What's the meeting about?" I asked, nodding to Drew Roberts as I passed his office.

"He didn't say," Miranda said.

"Do we know who else is in the meeting?"

"He didn't say," Miranda said.

The second-floor conference room sits adjacent to Carl's office, which is at the smaller end of our agency's vaguely egg-shaped building. The building itself has been written up in Architectural Digest, which described it as a "Four-way collision between Frank Gehry, Le Corbousier, Jay Ward and the salmonella bacteria." It's unfair to the salmonella bacteria. My office is stacked on the larger arc of the egg on the first floor, along with the offices of all the other junior agents. After today, a second-floor, little-arc office was looking somewhat more probable in the future. I was humming the theme to "The Jeffersons" as Miranda and I got to the door of the conference room and walked through.

In the conference room sat Carl, an aquarium, and a lot of empty chairs.

"Tom," said Carl. "Good of you to come."

"Thanks, Carl," I said, "Good of you to have the meeting." I then turned to the table to consider probably the most important decision of the meeting: Where to sit.

If you sit too close to Carl, you will be pegged as an obsequious, toadying suck-up. Which is not all that bad. But it will also mean you run the risk of depriving a more senior agent his rightful position at the table. Which is very bad. Promising agency careers had been brutally derailed for such casual disregard of one's station.

On the other hand, if you sit too far away, it's a signal that you want to hide, that you haven't been getting your clients the good roles and the good money; thus you've become a drag on the agency. Agents smell fear like sharks smell wounded sea otter pups. Soon your clients will be poached from you. You'll then have nothing to do but stare at your office walls and drink antifreeze until you go blind.

I sat about halfway down the table, slightly closer to Carl than not. What the hell. I earned it.

"Why are you sitting so far away?" Carl asked.

I blinked.

"I'm just saving space for the other folks in the meeting," I said. Had he heard about the Michelle Beck deal already? How does he do it? Has he tapped my phone? I goggled frantically at Miranda, who was standing behind me, notepad at ready. She shot me a look that said, don't ask me. I'm just here to take shorthand.

"That's very considerate of you, Tom," Carl said. "But no one else is coming. In fact, if you don't mind, I'd prefer it if Ms. Escalon wouldn't mind excusing us as well."

This would be the point where I casually dismissed my assistant and turned suavely to Carl, ready for our executive pow-wow. What I ended up doing was staring blankly. Fortunately, Miranda was on the ball. "Gentlemen," she said, excusing herself. On her way out, she dug the spike of her shoe into my pinky toe, and snapped me back to reality. I stood up, looking for where to sit.

"Why don't you sit here," Carl said, and pointed to a chair on the far side of the table, next to the aquarium.

"Great. Thanks," I said. I walked to the other side of table and sat down. I stared at Carl. He stared back. He had a little smile on his face.

There are legends in the world of agents. There's Lew Wasserman, the agent of his day, who went over to the other side of the movie business and thrived at Universal Pictures. There's Mike Ovitz, who went over to the other side and exploded, humiliatingly, at Disney.

And then there's Carl Lupo, my boss, who went over to the other side, took Century Pictures from a schlock-horror house to the biggest studio in Hollywood in just under a decade and then, at the height of his reign, came back over into agency. No one knows why. It scares the Hell out of everyone.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"What?" Carl said. Then he almost immediately laughed. "Relax, Tom. I just want to have a little chat. It's been a while since we've talked."

The last time Carl and I had talked directly to each other in a non-meeting setting was three years earlier. I had just graduated from the mailroom to the agency floor, where I shared a pod with another mailroom escapee. My client list was a former teen idol, then in his 30s and a semi-regular at intervention sessions, and a cute but brainless 22-year old UCLA cheerleader named Shelly Beckwith. Carl had dropped by, shook hands with me and my podmate, and blathered pleasantries with us for exactly two minutes and thirty seconds before moving on to the next pod to do the same thing.

Since then, the former teen idol strangled in his own saliva, my podmate imploded from stress and left the agency to become a Buddhist monk in Big Bear, Shelly Beckwith became Michelle Beck and got lucky with two hits in a row, and I got an office. It's a strange world.

"How are things going with Michelle Beck's negotiations?" Carl asked.

"They're done, actually," I said. "We're getting twelve five, cash and percentages, and that's before merchandising."

"That's good to hear," Carl said. "Davis thought you'd hit a wall at about $8.5 million, you know. I told him you'd top that by at least three and a half. You beat the point spread by a half million dollars."

"Always happy to overachieve, Carl."

"Yes, well, Brad's no good at bargaining anyway. I stuck him with Allen Green, of all people, for 20 million. How that film is ever going to make a profit now is really beyond me."

I chose not to say anything at this point.

"Oh, well, not our problem, I suppose," Carl said. "Tell me, Tom. Do you like science fiction?"

"Science fiction?" I said. "Sure. Star Wars and Star Trek, mostly, same as everyone. As a kid I remember begging my mother to let me stay up and watch 'Battlestar Galactica'. And there was a period when I was 14 when I read just about every Robert Heinlein book I could get my hands on. It's been a while since I've really read any, though. I watched Murdered Earth once, at the premiere. I think that's killed the genre for me for a while."

"Which do you like better, movies with evil aliens, or movies with good aliens?"

"I don't know," I said. "I haven't really ever given it much thought."

"Please do so now," Carl said. "Indulge me, if you don't mind."

Carl could have said Please disembowel yourself and sauté your intestines with mushrooms. Indulge me, if you don't mind and anyone in the agency would have done it. It's disgusting what sycophancy can do.

"I guess if I had to make the choice, I'd go with the evil aliens," I said. "They just make for better films. Put in a bad alien and you get the Alien films, Independence Day, Predator, Stargate, Starship Troopers. Good aliens get you *Batteries Not Included. No contest."

"Well," Carl said, "There is E.T. And Close Encounters."

"I'll give you E.T.," I said. "But I don't buy Close Encounters. Those aliens were cute, sure, but that doesn't mean they weren't evil. Once they got out of the solar system, Richard Dreyfus was probably penned up like a veal. Anyway, no one really knows what's going on in that movie. Spielberg must have been downing peyote frosties when he thought that one up."

"The Star Trek movies have good aliens. So do the Star Wars movies."

"The Star Trek movies have bad aliens too, like the Klingons and those guys with the wires in their heads."

"The Borg," Carl said.

"Right," I said. "And in Star Wars, no one was from Earth, so everyone, technically, was an alien."

"Interesting," Carl said. He was steepling his fingers together. Apparently the revelation that everyone in Star Wars had a passport from some other planet had transfixed him like a particularly troublesome Zen koan.

"If you don't mind me asking, Carl," I said, "Why are we talking about this? Are we putting together a package for a science fiction movie? Other than Earth Resurrected, I mean."

"Not exactly," Carl said, unsteepling his fingers, and placing them, flat out, on the desk. "I was having a discussion with a friend of mine about this and I wanted to get another opinion on it. Your opinion on the matter is like his, by the way. He's pretty much of the opinion that people are more comfortable with aliens as a hostile 'other' rather than a group that would have friendly intentions."

"Well, I don't think most people really think of aliens one way or the other," I said. "I mean, we're talking about movies, here. As much as I like the movies, it's not the same time thing."

"Really?" The fingersteeple was suddenly back. "So if real aliens dropped from the sky, people might accept that they'd be friendly?"

I was back to staring again. I remembered having a conversation like this, once before in my life. The difference was that that conversation was back in my deeply stoned college freshman days, in a room strung with Christmas lights and tin foil, lying on a beanbag. The conversation I was having now was with one of the few men on the planet who could have the President of the United States return his call. Within ten minutes (They roomed together at Yale). Having this conversation with Carl was profoundly incongruous, right up there with listening to your grandfather talk about the merits of the hottest new sports kayak.

"Maybe," I ventured. When in doubt, equivocate.

"Hmmmm." Carl said. "So, Tom. Tell me about your clients."

I have a little man in the back of my brain. He likes to panic in situations like these. He was looking around nervously. I kicked him back into his hole and started down the list.

First and foremost, obviously, was Michelle: beautiful, in demand, and not nearly smart enough to realize the dumbest thing she could at this point in her life is not take the money and run. I blamed myself.

Next up was Elliot Young, hunky young star of the ABC's "Pacific Rim". "Pacific Rim" was second in its Wednesday 9 PM time slot and 63rd overall for the year. But thanks to Elliot's tight, volleyball-player ass and ABC's willingness to have him drop his shorts to solve crime at least once per episode, it was cleaning up in the 18-34 female viewers category. ABC was selling a lot of ad time to yeast infection treatments and feminine products with "wings". Everyone was happy. Elliot's looking to expand into film, but then, of course, who isn't.

Rashaad Creek, urban comic, originally from the mean streets of Marin County, where they'll busta cap in your ass for serving red wine with fish. Rashaad wasn't nearly as neurotic as most comedians, which means on his own he's generally not as funny. Nevertheless, thanks to some nice packaging work, we'd sold his pilot "Workin' Out!" to UPN. Rashaad's budding career was watched over like a hawk by his overbearing manager, who also happened to be his mother. We pause for a shudder here.

The unfortunately-named Tea Reader (pronounced tee-a), singer-turned-actress that I inherited from my old podmate after his forebrain sucked inward. Tea, from what I can figure, contributed a good half of his stress -- notoriously difficult and given to tantrums far out of proportion to her track record (Three singles from one album, peaking at #9, #13 and #24, respectively, a second female lead in a Pauly Shore flick, and a series of ads for Mentos). She was just this side (she insisted) of 30, which made her a perfect candidate to host her own talk show or infomercial. Tea called about once a week and threatened to get other representation. I wish.

Tony Baltz, a character actor who was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar a decade ago, and had since refused to consider anything that's not a lead role. Which was a shame, as the romantic lead market for 50-something short, bald guys was pretty much already sewn up by Danny DeVito and Dennis Franz. We managed to get him the occasional "Lifetime" movie.

The rest of my clients were a collection of has-beens, never-weres, near-misses and not-there-yets, the sorts of folks that fill out the bottom half of every junior agent's dance card. Someone has to play the second spear-carrier on the left, and someone has to represent them. Be that as it may, going over the list with Carl, I realized that if it wasn't for the presence of Michelle, my client roster was of the sort that makes for a lifetime of junior agenthood. I decided not to bring it up.

"So, to recap," Carl said, after I had finished, "One superstar, two average-to-mediocres, two marginals and a bunch of filler."

I thought about trying to sweeten up that assessment, but then realized there wasn't a point. I shrugged. "I suppose so, Carl. It's no worse than any other junior agent's client list here."

"Oh, no, I wasn't criticizing," Carl said. "You're a good agent, Tom. You look out for your people and you get them work -- and, as today proves, you can get them what they're worth and then some. You're a sharp kid. You're going to do well in this business."

"Thanks, Carl," I said.

"Sure," he said. He pushed back his chair a bit and plopped his legs on the table. "Tom, how many of your clients do you think you can afford to lose?"


"How many can you lose?" Carl waved his hand. "You know, farm out to other agents, drop entirely, whatever."

The little man in my head had escaped from his hole and was running around frantically, as if on fire. "None!" I said. "I mean, with all due respect, Carl, I can't lose any of them. It's not fair to them, for one thing, but for another thing, I need them. Michelle's doing well now, but believe me, that's not going to last forever. You can't ask me to cut myself off at the knees."

I pushed back slightly from the table. "Jesus, Carl," I said. "What's going on here? First the science fiction, now with my clients -- None of this making much sense to me at the moment. I'm getting a little nervous, here. If you've got some bad news for me, stop twisting me and just get to it."

Carl stared at me for the fifteen longest seconds in my life. Then he put his feet down, and moved his chair closer to me.

"You're right, Tom" he said. "I'm not handling this very well. I apologize. Let me try this again." He closed his eyes, took a breath, and looked straight at me. I thought my spine was going to liquefy.

"Tom," he said, "I have a client. It's a very important client, Tom, probably the most important client we as an agency will ever have. At least I can't imagine any other client being more important than this one. This client feels that he has a very serious image problem, and I'd have to say that I agree with him there. He has a special project that he wants to put together, something that needs the most delicate handling imaginable.

"I need someone to help me get this project off the ground, someone that I can trust. Someone who can handle the job for me without my constant supervision, and who can keep his ego in check for the sake of the project.

"I'm hoping you'll be that someone for me, Tom. If you say no, it won't affect your role at the agency in the slightest -- you can walk out of this office and this meeting that we've had simply won't have happened. But if you do say yes, it means you're committed, whatever it takes, for as long as it takes. Will you help me?"

The little man in my head was now pounding on the backsides of my eyeballs. Say NO, the little man was saying. Say no and then let's go to TGI Fridays and get really, really drunk.

"Sure," I said. The little man in my head started weeping openly.

Carl reached over, covered my hand like it was his computer mouse, and shook it vigorously. "I knew I could count on you," he said. "Thanks. I think you're going to enjoy this."

"I hope so," I said. "I'm in for the long haul. So who is the client? Is it Tony?" Antonio Marantz had been caught fondling a sixteen-year-old extra on the set of the latest Morocco Joe film. It was a bad situation made worse by the fact that the sixteen-year-old that People's "Most Eligible Bachelor" was fooling around with happened to be a boy, and the son of the director. After the director's fingers were pried from Tony's throat, everything was hushed up. The director got a million dollar raise. The boy got a Director's Guild "internship" on the Admiral Cook biopic that was filming in Greenland for the next six months. Tony got a stern lecture about the effect that cavorting with underage boys would have on the asking price of his next role. The crew got lesser but still fairly rich favors. Everyone stayed bought; It didn't even make the gossip column of Buzz. But you never know. These things spring leaks.

"No, it's not Tony," Carl said. "Our client is here."

"In the building?"

"No," Carl said, tapping the aquarium that was between us. "Here."

"I'm not following you, Carl," I said. "You're talking about an aquarium."

"Look in the aquarium," Carl said.

For the first time since I entered the room, I took a good look at the aquarium. It was rectangular and neither especially big or small -- about the size of the usual aquarium you'd see in any home. The only thing notable about it was the absence of fish, rocks, bubbling filters or little plastic treasure chests. It was filled entirely with a liquid that was clear but slightly cloudy, as if the aquarium water hadn't been changed in about a month. I stood up, looked over the top of the aquarium, and got a closer look. And smell. I looked over the aquarium at him.

"What is this, tuna Jell-O?"

"Not exactly," Carl said, and then addressed the aquarium. "Joshua, please say hello to Tom."

The stuff in the aquarium vibrated.

"Hi, Tom," the aquarium gunk said. "It's nice to meet you."

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 10:57 PM